Many pediatricians agree that early mental health screenings are important; however, few providers are actually conducting these screenings in their own practices. In a new study published in the journal Pediatrics, researchers have found that if pediatricians were to receive the right training and support, they would be far more likely to carry out mental health screenings during children’s annual checkups.
The study, led by the Children’s National Health System in Washington D.C., showed that mental health screening rates improved from one percent to 74 percent during the 15-month study. A total of 10 pediatric practices and 107 individual providers in the area voluntarily participated in the study.
“This study is an important first step towards early identification of children with mental health concerns,” says Lee S. Beers, M.D., the study’s lead author. “If you identify and treat children with mental health concerns earlier, you’re going to see better outcomes.”
It is estimated that around 13 percent of youth live with a serious mental illness in the U.S., but only about 20 percent of these young people get the help they need, according to the DC Collaborative for Mental Health in Pediatric Primary Care.
There are several reasons for the low rates of mental health screenings among children. For example, primary care providers have cited a shortage of pediatric mental health providers, a lack of time, insufficient resources and lower reimbursements.
To address the lack of mental health screenings, researchers decided to test whether the Quality Improvement (QI) Learning Collaborative model, which was pioneered in the mid-1990s to scale and improve health care services, would help the doctors integrate these important screenings into their practices.
The QI Learning Collaborative model allows for a more hands-on approach than the typical “once and done” study, says Beers. In particular, the primary care providers in the study received periodic check-ins, ongoing support, monitoring, and technical assistance.
“We use rapid cycles of evaluation to see what’s working and what’s not working, and we keep going,” says Beers.
Beers is optimistic about how well the practices performed, adding the caveat that more information is needed about the burden it could place on already bustling pediatric practices. In addition, she says, “future research will be needed to determine whether identifying mental health issues also leads to improved access to care and outcomes for pediatric patients.”