Every time a patient visits Jason Connelly, MD, they must fill out a depression screening, thanks to a 2017 rule which mandates such assessments.

Providing a screener and, if needed, a follow-up plan means a patient may gain access to medication or cognitive behavioral therapy that will improve their lives. But Connelly, a family medicine physician at Novant Health West Rowan Family Medicine in Cleveland, North Carolina, said the screening measure — and others like it that insurers and quality groups use to assess clinician performance — does not allow for enough flexibility.

For instance, he must follow-up with patients every 4 months, regardless of the severity of their depression.

“A lot of times when these are written for the purpose of measures, they don’t take into the reality of clinical medicine,” Connelly, who is also a clinical physician executive with Novant, said. “There certainly needs to be room for the ability to specify the level of depression such that if it is mild, well, maybe that follow-up is at 6 months or 12 months or at patient discretion.”

A recent report from the American College of Physicians (ACP) supported Connelly’s view. The body looked at eight quality measures in primary care for patients with major depressive disorder (MDD) and found only one — a risk assessment for suicide — to be clinically meaningful and based on evidence.

The ACP panel said nearly all of the performance measures “lacked current clinical evidence, did not consider patient preferences, were not tested appropriately, or were outside a physician’s control.”

The group called for improvements in such assessments “to accurately assess the quality of clinical care” for patients with major depression.

Necessary Evil or Burdensome Time Suck?

The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services scores clinicians and health systems on the percentage of their patients who receive a screening during a visit; if the screening is positive, clinicians must document a follow-up plan using special manual entry codes.

Physicians say the process of meeting government standards for invalid measures can create unnecessary visits and physician paperwork, shrink monetary bonuses, and may not portray an accurate portrait of what best practice looks like in primary care for mental health. But many also said the program overall brings value to patients and provides a picture of how well they are practicing but only when measures are clinically relevant.

Standards ACP Used for Validating Depression Measurement
  • A committee with ACP used a modified appropriateness method from RAND and UCLA.
  • They weighed if a metric was evidence-based, methodologically sound, and clinically meaningful.
  • They rated each measure using a 9-point scale, including appropriate care, feasibility or applicability, and measure specifications.
  • A total of 11 committee members voted anonymously if each metric was a valid way of measuring individual clinicians, at the practice/system level, and health plan.

“There’s been such a flood of performance measurements that we can get sidetracked, diverted, and spend resources and effort on measurements that don’t improve care,” said Nick Fitterman, MD, chair of the ACP’s Performance Measurement Committee.

Primary care clinicians can choose from more than 60 metrics for 2024. Many involve caring for patients with mental illness or screening for those who could be underdiagnosed. Programs that certify health systems as providing quality care use the measures, in addition to the Merit-Based Incentive Payment System. Health systems choose six measures of quality to tie to their reimbursement — along with assessments of costs and use of technology.

In turn, Medicare adjusts its reimbursement based on how well a clinician’s numbers turn out and if they improved over time.

You don’t get the benefit of the upside if you don’t meet the measure, so your payment is neutral and that can be significant from a broader system lens,” Connelly said. “Then you start to have to make decisions on what services do we then have to limit because we no longer have the financial capability.”

The implications for health systems and patient care are the reason ACP and clinicians are calling for some measures to be amended. Fitterman said his organization plans to work with CMS.

Implementing Measurement

At Bassett Health in New York, the health system uses the depression and follow-up plan measure to qualify for certification from the Health Resources and Services Administration as a patient-centered medical home, which the company uses in part to market itself to patients.

Amy Grace, MD, an attending physician in internal and family medicine at Bassett Health in Little Falls, New York, said if a patient refuses to take a depression screening, she will not meet the measure for that visit. But providing a screening is not always clinically appropriate, and some patients do not need a follow-up plan.

“If someone has just had a death in the family, they might answer the questions in a way that would be consistent with depression, but they’re experiencing grief as opposed to clinical depression,” Grace said.

Suggestions From ACP for Improvement in MDD Metrics
  • Create and implement criteria for patients who do not need a follow-up plan based on clinician judgment.
  • Add methods for clinicians to measure and indicate severity of MDD.
  • Enable use of a wider array of evidence-based tools and screenings to screen for MDD.
  • Allow clinicians to document changes in treatment plan.

Bassett is building into the electronic health record a button that documents the screening was not conducted and that it was not appropriate to administer that day. Of course, building these in-house options entails utilizing resources that smaller systems or independent groups of clinicians may lack.

Eric Wei, MD, senior vice president and chief quality officer at NYC Health + Hospitals in New York City, said the ACP report underscores that many measures, even beyond depression, must be improved.

“With burnout and cognitive overload of our providers, on top of the medicine and just trying to come to the right diagnosis and providing the right treatment and the best care experience, you have to remember all these quality metrics and make sure you put all these things in certain places in the electronic health record,” Wei said.

Still, Wei said that the annual rate of depression screening across 400,000 patients in his system is 91%. He and his team spent 6 years working to improve uptake among clinicians, and now, they have moved on to increasing rates of administration of the suicide assessment.

Each clinician uses a dashboard to track their individual metric performance, according to Ted Long, MD, senior vice president for ambulatory care and population health at NYC Health + Hospitals. Long said he is proud of the improvements he and his colleagues have made in catching undiagnosed depression and in other disease states.

At his primary care practice in the Bronx, nearly 9 out of 10 patients with hypertension have their condition under control, he said. How does he know? Measurement tracking.

“Knowing that when a new patient is in front of me with high blood pressure, that there’s a 9 out of 10 chance that after seeing me because of my clinic, not just because of me, I’m going to be able to keep them healthy by controlling their blood pressure, that’s very meaningful to me,” Long said. “I think that’s the other side: It enables me as a doctor to know that I’m delivering the highest quality of care to my patients.”

Takeaways for Depression Screening and Follow-Up in Clinical Settings
  • Just because a patient scores positive for the depression screener, a clinician should dig deeper before making a diagnosis.
  • Patients have the right to refuse a screener and their wishes should be respected.
  • Providing a screener may not be appropriate at every visit, such as for a patient with a sprained ankle or a potential respiratory infection where time is limited.
  • Clinicians can clarify within the measure that the patient did not have mental capacity on that visit to fill out the screener.

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