Suicide is a leading cause of death among adolescents ages 10 to 19 years old. Research shows that most pediatric primary care physicians do not routinely ask youths about suicidal thoughts. If primary care physicians identify a suicidal adolescent, the adolescent is unlikely to receive mental health care. Fortunately, researchers at Nationwide Children’s Hospital have developed a computerized system that asks youths if they have had thoughts about suicide. If they have, a mental health specialist is notified so the adolescent receives the care they need. In a recent study conducted by researchers at Nationwide Children’s, primary care and mental health care providers used information technology to improve care for youths with suicidal thoughts in a primary care setting.
The study, published in the May issue of Pediatrics, found that by using computerized technology, primary care doctors identified youths with many behavioral health risks and successfully connected them to specialized mental health providers.
The study used web-connected computer tablets to ask adolescent patients questions about sensitive topics including depression, substance abuse and suicide. Based on the patient’s response, their doctor could best advise the patient on follow-up care or specialist appointments. The web-based system also immediately alerted a team of psychiatric social workers who met with the family to help triage the case, counsel the family and connect them with a mental health treatment provider.
William Gardner, PhD, the study’s senior author and investigator in the Center for Innovation in Pediatric Practice in The Research Institute at Nationwide Children’s Hospital, said that web-based computing has great potential to help primary care physicians efficiently screen patients for behavioral health problems.
Web-based computers make good use of patients’ waiting room time and allows for real-time results to facilitate quick, informed decisions about the patient’s care. “Physicians are rushed during daily clinic appointments,” said Gardner, also professor of Pediatrics, Psychology, and Psychiatry at The Ohio State University. “By using web-based technology, we can enhance communications between patients and their doctors, both primary care providers and specialists. This technology also helps primary care staff and mental health providers work together as a team to help families receive the care they need.”
The study screened more than 1,500 youths and of those, 14 percent reported that they had had serious thoughts about taking their own lives in the previous month. With the help this new technology, 94 percent of the youths who reported suicidal thoughts met with a social worker on the day of the visit. “Suicide is an urgent medical condition; it’s about time we started treating it like one,” said Gardner.