Doctor's Office Nurses Help People Manage Depression, But Who Pays?

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Nurse care managers nearly double the likelihood of significant improvement among depressed patients, according to strong evidence in a new review of studies.

In this team approach, a doctor's office nurse monitors patients by phone and coordinates communication between medical and mental health providers.

"Care management models for depression help more people get better," said lead review author John Williams, M.D., of the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Durham, N.C.

However, the approach may not be practical for many care settings. Most of the reviewed studies were conducted in large health care organizations and required additional resources or staff reassignment. "Practices in fee-for-service environments that do not reimburse for care management services have few incentives for implementing these interventions," the authors say.

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Finding effective ways to treat depression is increasingly important because the mood disorder will be the second leading cause of disability in the developed world by 2020, according to the World Health Organization. Experts are trying the doctor's office-care manager approach because most Americans with mental illness are treated exclusively by primary care clinicians, not by a mental health specialist, studies show.

The review, which appears in the latest issue of General Hospital Psychiatry, includes 28 randomized controlled trials involving almost 11,000 patients, primarily in the United States and Western Europe. The majority of patients were white females, except for those in five studies based in Veterans Affairs medical centers and a study in Santiago, Chile.

Twenty studies resulted in patient improvements recorded for up to one year. Of these, three revealed that the benefits persisted for nearly five years. Patients reported better mental, social, physical and work functioning in the majority of studies that asked about these issues.

Most of the trials were of high quality, according to the reviewers. Yet the studies differed markedly in many aspects, making it impossible to pool the data in a meta-analysis. Instead, the reviewers describe the patterns of successful interventions.

Core elements of effective care management programs include a registry of patients diagnosed with depression and a health professional who:

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