care clinicians directly questioned patients about suicide (Williams et al., 1999), despite the fact that such questions are supposed to be asked during a depression evaluation (Beck et al., 1979; US Preventive Services Task Force, 1996). When broken down by specialty, the study found 65 percent of family physicians, 52 percent of general internists, and 48 percent of obstetrician-gynecologists assessed suicide by direct questions. Through regression analyses, the study found that family physicians and general internists were significantly more likely to make direct assessments for suicide than were obstetrician-gynecologists (Williams et al., 1999). Reasons for physician reticence in asking about suicide are discussed in a later section.
Even when patients’ depression is accurately diagnosed, only a minority of patients receive adequate treatment for depression (US DHHS, 1999; Young et al., 2001). Since the vast majority of primary care physicians prefer to treat depression with medication (Williams et al., 1999), studies often measure inadequate treatment by inadequate dosage or duration of medication, infrequent follow-up, lack of medication adjustment, and/or inadequate conformance to treatment guidelines. Although detection and treatment in primary care are improving, major professional efforts have been undertaken to highlight and respond to the problem (Beck et al., 1979; Hirschfeld et al., 1997).
What are the reasons for inadequate detection and treatment of depression by primary care physicians? The most frequently cited barriers relate to lack of knowledge and time. One recent survey of randomly selected primary care physicians found them to report widespread lack of knowledge about diagnostic criteria and treatment of depression. Overall, about one-third reported knowledge of formal diagnostic criteria and treatment, yet there was great variation between primary care specialties. Obstetrician–gynecologists reported the least knowledge, whereas family physicians reported the most knowledge (Williams et al., 1999). Inadequate time and competing demands created by other health problems— under the cost pressures of managed care—have been identified as barriers in several studies (Borowsky et al., 2000; Rost et al., 2000; Williams et al., 1999). The mean duration of a visit to a primary care physician is 16.3 minutes (Blumenthal et al., 1999), to which patients bring an average of six problems (cited in Williams et al., 1999). The time constraints on the primary care physician become immediately apparent, sparking concerns that primary care clinicians are ill-equipped for their enhanced role in detection of depression (Kane, 1996; Katon et al., 2001). Under-detection and under-treatment of depression are clearly associated with patient distress and disability (Hirschfeld et al., 1997).