Too Many Screenings, Too Little Time, Not Enough Payment

Pediatricians have long charted the vitals of children and adolescents – height, weight, blood pressure – to ensure that kids are healthy and developing as they should. This is the core of the profession. But today the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that pediatricians also perform maternal depression screenings, childhood depression screenings, autism screenings, and suicide risk screenings once children become 12 years old in addition to other screenings. Specific screening tools might include the Modified Checklist for Autism in Toddlers (MCHAT) for autism screening, the PHQ2 and PHQ9 (part of the longer Patient Health Questionnaire) for depression screening, and the Suicide Behavior Questionnaire Revised (SBQ-R) for suicide screening.

The AAP’s list of recommended screenings – which are developed by various research groups and endorsed by AAP – includes approximately 30 screenings in all, which vary somewhat depending on age. Seven screenings are mental and behavioral health assessments that would, depending on the screening results, require other expertise to address.

“We all want to keep [children] healthy. We actually do want to do these screenings, because they can be very helpful,” said Herschel Lessin, MD, of the Children’s Medical Group in Hopewell Junction, N.Y. Dr. Lessin’s concern is that he may not have anywhere to refer children and their families if he conducts a screening that flags something concerning such as a deeply depressed teenager. Sometimes first appointments with mental health professionals are not available for months.

“Sure – they want us to screen for depression, they want us to screen for anxiety. OK, you get a positive. What do you do? Well, guess what – there are no resources for children and mental health in this country,” Dr. Lessin said.

In Dr. Lessin’s view, economic realities prevent pediatricians from performing detailed psychological screenings anyway – no matter how useful or evidence based they might be, even if mental health support was abundant. He estimates that his practice conducts 20-25 visits a day, around 20 minutes each, of which maybe a dozen are well-child visits, just to keep the doors open. If he thoroughly screened every child or adolescent in the manner recommended by the AAP, Dr. Lessin said, he could do a fraction of that volume and would have to close his doors as a result.

Beside the time burden, insurers reimburse developmental and psychological screenings at low rates, Dr. Lessin said, even with claims that accurately itemize every screening delivered.

“Insurance companies refuse to pay adequately for any of this stuff. They expect me to do it for free, or do it for pennies,” Dr. Lessin said. He said that the natural result of such an arrangement is that some pediatricians stop taking insurance and only work with families that can afford their rates, further entrenching unequal health care by catering to wealthy families who can afford to pay for longer visits. Other pediatricians just don’t do all of the recommended screenings.

“I don’t want it to sound like I’m whining about being paid. They don’t adequately resource what they expect us to do, which is to be society’s social worker,” Dr. Lessin said.

Practical advice for interpreting and prioritizing screenings

Other pediatricians called for screening developers to include guidance for pediatricians about how to counsel families when a screening turns up a concerning result.

“What can we do as pediatricians in that moment to help that family?” asked Karalyn Kinsella, MD, of Pediatric Associates of Cheshire in Cheshire, Conn.

Sometimes the path forward is clear, as with an autism screening; in those cases, Dr. Kinsella said, Connecticut requires referral for a full autism evaluation from birth to age 3. But for other situations, such as an anxiety screening, it is less clear how to proceed.

Dr. Kinsella said that in her experience in-person appointments with a mental health professional, compared with telehealth, work best for her patients. This enables the teenager to find a good fit with a therapist, which can take time when first appointments are so elusive. Any support for pediatricians to bridge the gap until therapy is established is welcome.

“It would be great if it came along with some training – just a brief training – of some ways we can help families before they get into a therapist, or before it gets to the point that they need therapy,” Dr. Kinsella said.

Dr. Kinsella stressed that pediatricians need to use their own judgment when interpreting screening results. Sometimes the MCHAT will miss cases of autism, for example, or the PHQ9 will flag a teenager for depression who is actually just fidgety and having some trouble sleeping.

In her view, the existence of such screens – which might also include screenings for drug abuse, toxic stress, or food insecurity, along with autism, anxiety, and maternal or child depression – is a good development, despite their imperfections and the difficulties of getting help in a timely manner.

“Twenty years ago we really didn’t have any screens,” Dr. Kinsella said.

But it may be that there are now too many recommended screens in pediatrics, even if they all individually have value.

“In the adult world, screenings haven’t mushroomed as in pediatrics” said Dr. Timothy J. Joos, MD, MPH, who practices combined internal medicine and pediatrics at Neighborcare Health in Seattle. Recommended adult health screenings are largely driven by the work of the United States Preventive Services Task Force, which requires a high level of evidence before a screening is recommended. The pediatrics screening world, in Dr. Joos’s view, is populated by a more diffuse set of actors and has therefore inevitably resulted in a profusion of recommended screenings.

Although its main focus is adults, Dr. Joos noted that the USPSTF has evaluated many of the pediatric screenings currently endorsed by AAP. Sometimes there is strong evidence for these screenings, such as universal screening for depression and anxiety in older children. But Dr. Joos noted that per the USPSTF, many of the screenings now recommended by AAP on asymptomatic children for autism, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, or anemia don’t have strong evidence on a population level.

“In many cases, we have a good screen, but it just lacks the research,” Dr. Joos said. Nonetheless, every screening is recommended with “equal weight,” Dr. Joos said, calling for AAP to offer a more prioritized approach to screening rather than an “all comers” approach.

“If you don’t set priorities, you don’t have priorities,” Dr. Joos said, which leads to untenable expectations for what can be accomplished during short visits.

AAP responds

Susan Kressly, MD, who chairs AAP’s Section on Administration and Practice and is a consultant based in Sanibel, Fla., said that we know that using targeting screenings will miss a significant proportion of patients whom you could better assist and care for; for example, if you just go by your gut feeling about whether kids are using drugs or alcohol and just screen those kids. Every screening endorsed by AAP has some degree of evidence for use at a population level rather than case by case, Dr. Kressly noted.

This doesn’t mean that every single screening must be done at each and every recommended interval, she emphasized.

“The first priority is what’s important to the patient and the family. While we understand that screening is at a population health level, there should be some intelligent use and prioritization of these screening tools,” Dr. Kressly said. As examples, Dr. Kressly noted that there is no need to keep administering autism screenings in families whose children already receive autism services, or to ask a teenager questions about anxiety they had answered 6 weeks earlier.

The screenings should be seen as a tool for enhancing relationships with children and their families, not as a series of endless tasks, Dr. Kressly concluded.

Dr. Lessin’s priority is that pediatricians get more support – time, money, training, adequately resourced mental health care – to carry out their expanded role.

“Pediatricians are pretty nice. We want to do the right thing, but everything blocks us from doing it,” Dr. Lessin said.

Dr. Joos, Dr. Kinsella, and Dr. Lessin are on the MDedge Pediatric News Editorial Advisory Board.

This article originally appeared on, part of the Medscape Professional Network.

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