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Original Research

National Patterns of Depression Treatment in Primary Care

Randall S. Stafford, MD, PhD; John C. Ausiello, BA; Bismruta Misra, MPH; and Demet Saglam, MA

Published: December 1, 2000

Article Abstract

Background: While past studies suggest that primary care physicians underdiagnose and undertreat depression, little is known about recent national patterns of depression treatment.

Method: Using the 1995 and 1996 National Ambulatory Medical Care Surveys, we analyzed 1322 primary care office visits by patients reported to have depression. Rates of psychotherapy/mental health counseling, antidepressant use, and benzodiazepine use were assessed. Independent predictors of depression therapy were examined using multiple logistic regression. Where instructive, we compared the practices of primary care physicians with those of psychiatrists (2418 depression visits).

Results: Primary care physicians reported depression in 7.8% of their office visits. For these depression visits, antidepressants (42%) were the most common form of treatment, followed by psychotherapy/mental health counseling (28%) and benzodiazepines (21%). Among specific antidepressants, selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors were most often prescribed by primary care physicians (26% of depression visits). Rates of antidepressant and benzodiazepine use varied significantly by primary care specialty. In addition, geographic region and health insurance status influenced the likelihood of receiving benzodiazepines. In their depression visits, psychiatrists reported psychotherapy/mental health counseling (88%) most frequently, followed by antidepressants (64%) and benzodiazepines (25%).

Conclusion: The predominant use of selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors suggests that primary care physicians have begun to adopt new therapeutic strategies for depression. The modest rate of antidepressant therapy for a clinical population specifically identified by primary care physicians as having depression may indicate undertreatment of depression in primary care settings. Furthermore, high rates of benzodiazepine use are inconsistent with treatment guidelines, and variations in treatment patterns suggest that nonclinical factors influence depression management.

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