Conference Coverage

Routinely screen for depression in atopic dermatitis


Screening for depression in patients with atopic dermatitis is a vital task that’s woefully neglected – and dermatologists aren’t doing any better a job of it than primary care physicians, Jonathan I. Silverberg, MD, PhD, declared in a video presentation during a virtual meeting held by the George Washington University department of dermatology.

Dr. Jonathan Silverberg

Dr. Jonathan Silverberg

The virtual meeting included presentations that had been slated for the annual meeting of the American Academy of Dermatology, which was canceled because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Dr. Silverberg presented highlights of his recent study of depression screening rates in the National Ambulatory Medical Care Survey, an annual population-based survey by the National Center for Health Statistics. He and his coinvestigator analyzed 9,345 office visits for atopic dermatitis (AD) and 2,085 for psoriasis (Br J Dermatol. 2019 Oct 24. doi: 10.1111/bjd.18629.). The picture that emerged showed that there is much room for improvement.

“We found that depression screening rates were abysmally low in atopic dermatitis patients, with less than 2% patients being screened. There was very little difference in screening rates between patients on an advanced therapy, like systemic phototherapy or a biologic, compared to those who were just on topical therapy alone, meaning even the more severe patients aren’t being asked these questions. And no difference between dermatologists and primary care physicians,” said Dr. Silverberg, director of clinical research and contact dermatitis in the department of dermatology at George Washington University, Washington.

For Dr. Silverberg, known for his pioneering work documenting the marked yet often-underappreciated negative impact of AD on quality of life and mental health, these rock-bottom screening rates were particularly galling.

“There are very high rates of anxiety and depression amongst our patients with atopic dermatitis,” the dermatologist emphasized. “Mental health symptoms are an incredibly important domain in atopic dermatitis that we need to ask our patients about. We don’t ask enough.

“This to me is actually a very important symptom to measure. It’s not just a theoretical construct involved in understanding the burden of the disease, it’s something that’s actionable because most of these cases of mental health symptoms are reversible or modifiable with improved control of the atopic dermatitis,” he continued. “I use this as an indication to step up therapy. If a patient is clinically depressed and we believe that’s secondary to their chronic atopic dermatitis, this is a reason to step up therapy to something stronger.”

If the depressive symptoms don’t improve after stepping up the intensity of the dermatologic therapy, it’s probably time for the patient to see a mental health professional, Dr. Silverberg advised, adding, “I’m not telling every dermatology resident out there to become a psychiatrist.”

Depression and anxiety in AD: How common?

In an analysis of multiyear data from the Medical Expenditure Panel Surveys, an annual population-based project conducted by the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, Dr. Silverberg and a coinvestigator found that adults with AD were an adjusted 186% more likely than those without AD to screen positive for depressive symptoms on the two-item Patient Health Questionnaire (PHQ-2), with rates of 44.3% and 21.9%, respectively. The AD patients were also 500% more likely to screen positive for severe psychological distress, with a 25.9% rate of having a Kessler-6 index score of 13 or more, compared with 5.5% in adults without AD.

The rate of severe psychological distress was higher in adults with AD than in those with asthma, diabetes, hypertension, urticaria, or psoriasis, and was comparable with the rate in individuals with autoimmune disease (Ann Allergy Asthma Immunol. 2019 Aug;123[2]:179-85).

“It’s surprising when you think that the majority of the cases of atopic dermatitis in the population are mild and yet when you look at a population-based sample such as this you see a strong signal come up. It means that, with all the dilution of mild disease, the signal is still there. It emphasizes that even patients with mild disease get these depressive symptoms and psychosocial distress,” Dr. Silverberg observed.

In a separate analysis of the same national database, this time looking at Short Form-6D health utility scores – a measure of overall quality of life encompassing key domains including vitality, physical function, mental health, fatigue – adults with AD scored markedly worse than individuals with no chronic health disorders. Health utility scores were particularly low in adults with AD and comorbid symptoms of anxiety or depression, suggesting that those affective symptoms are major drivers of the demonstrably poor quality of life in adult AD (Ann Allergy Asthma Immunol. 2020 Jan;124[1]:88-9).

In the Atopic Dermatitis in America Study, Dr. Silverberg and coinvestigators cross-sectionally surveyed 2,893 adults using the seven-item Hospital Anxiety and Depression Scale anxiety (HADS-A) and depression (HADS-D) assessment instruments. Individuals with AD as determined using the modified U.K. Diagnostic Criteria had dramatically higher rates of both depression and anxiety. For example, the prevalence of a HADS-A score of 11 or more, which is considered to be case finding for clinically important anxiety, was 28.6% in adults with AD, nearly twice the 15.5% prevalence in those without the dermatologic disease. A HADS-D score of 11 or greater was present in 13.5% of subjects with AD and 9% of those without.

HADS-A and -D scores were higher in adults with moderate AD, compared with mild disease, and higher still in those with severe AD. Indeed, virtually all individuals with moderate to severe AD had symptoms of anxiety and depression, which in a large proportion had gone undiagnosed. A multivariate analysis strongly suggested that AD severity was the major driver of anxiety and depression in adults with AD (Br J Dermatol. 2019 Sep;181[3]:554-65).

An important finding was that 100% of adults with AD who had scores in the severe range on three validated measures of itch, frequency of symptoms, and lesion severity had borderline or abnormal scores on the HADS-A and -D.

“Of course, if you don’t ask, you’re not going to know about it,” Dr. Silverberg noted.

Dr. Silverberg reported receiving research grants from Galderma and GlaxoSmithKline and serving as a consultant to those pharmaceutical companies and more than a dozen others.

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