March 16, 2011

Online messaging delivers follow-up care for depression

Randomized trial  shows effectiveness, efficiency in Group Health patients

Seattle—Online messaging can deliver organized follow-up care for depression effectively andefficiently, according to a randomized controlled trial of 208 Group Health patients that the Journal of General Internal Medicine e-published  in advance of print.

After five months, compared to the half of the patients randomly assigned to receive usual  care, the half who had three online care management contacts with a trained psychiatric nurse were significantly more likely to feel less depressed, take their antidepressant medication as prescribed, and be “very satisfied” with their treatment for depression. The patients in the trial were starting antidepressant medication that their primary care providers prescribed.

“While more Americans are taking antidepressants, the quality of care for depression remains among the lowest scores on the U.S. health care report card,” said Gregory E. Simon, MD, MPH, a Group Health psychiatrist and Group Health Research Institute senior investigator. “Especially in primary care, where most treatment for depression starts, not enough patients receive follow-up contact or take their antidepressant medication as prescribed.”

In  previous studies, Dr. Simon and his colleagues have successfully delivered organized care for depression using telephone calls. Organized depression care means systematically reaching out to patients, assessing their depression and whether they are taking their antidepressant medication as prescribed, and following guidelines for evidence-based care. One such guideline is suggesting that  the primary care provider change the dose—or add or switch to another medication—if  depression or side effects bother a patient after a standard trial period. The bottom line: persistently tailoring treatment to boost each individual’s response.

Why try pursuing these same goals using online messaging instead of phone calls?

“Recently, for each phone contact with a patient, we’ve wasted a half hour on playing ‘phone tag,’” Dr. Simon said. Unlike phone calls, online messages require no simultaneous live contact, so they may boost the convenience and affordability of follow-up  care. He and his colleagues have found that secure, asynchronous messages within Group Health’s existing electronic medical record can improve care of  chronic conditions—and that patients being treated for depression are  particularly likely to use online communication with their health care  providers.

“We worried that patients might need live voice contact in real time to be understood and feel supported,” Dr. Simon said. “But this online care management helped these patients, even though they never met the trained psychiatric nurse in person or talked with her on the phone. And because she spent only one hour per patient to deliver this intervention, it promises to make high-quality depression care more affordable.”

The National Institute of Mental Health funded the trial. Dr. Simon’s coauthors were James D. Ralston, MD, MPH; James Savarino, PhD; Chester Pabiniak, MS; Christine Wentzel, RN; and Belinda H. Operskalski, MPH, of Group Health.

About Kaiser Permanente

Kaiser Permanente is committed to helping shape the future of health care. We are recognized as one of America’s leading health care providers and not-for-profit health plans. Founded in 1945, Kaiser Permanente has a mission to provide high-quality, affordable health care services and to improve the health of our members and the communities we serve. We currently serve more than 12.4 million members in eight states and the District of Columbia. Care for members and patients is focused on their total health and guided by their personal Permanente Medical Group physicians, specialists and team of caregivers. Our expert and caring medical teams are empowered and supported by industry-leading technology advances and tools for health promotion, disease prevention, state-of-the-art care delivery and world-class chronic disease management. Kaiser Permanente is dedicated to care innovations, clinical research, health education and the support of community health. For more information, go to: kp.org/share.

James D. Ralston, MD, MPH

Senior Investigator
Kaiser Permanente Washington Health Research Institute


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