Conference Coverage

Physicians often bypass cognition, depression screening in MS



– A new study finds that physicians at two multiple sclerosis centers in the Southeast often failed to annually screen patients for depression and cognitive decline. Physicians who did perform screening hardly ever used validated tools and often didn’t refer appropriate patients for higher-level care.

In addition, researchers interviewed 13 leading MS specialists from coast to coast and “found that about half reported not using formal screening tools to assess cognitive impairment and depression,” said study coauthor Tamar Sapir, PhD, chief scientific officer with Prime Education, a firm based in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., that provides a variety of health-related services such as training and research.

Dr. Tamar Sapir

The study findings were presented at the meeting held by the Americas Committee for Treatment and Research in Multiple Sclerosis. Three of the study authors spoke in interviews.

The researchers sought to understand how frequently MS patients are screened for cognitive problems and depression.

“Cognitive impairment is experienced by approximately half of patients with multiple sclerosis, yet many are never screened or treated, which can impact their daily activities, their ability to work, and overall quality of life,” Dr. Sapir said.

Depression, meanwhile, is believed to be much more common in patients with MS than in the general population, with one recent meta-analysis of 58 studies finding that the average prevalence was 31%. Other research suggests depression is underdiagnosed and undertreated in this population (J Neurol Sci. 2017 Jan 15;372:331-41; ISRN Neurology. 2012, Article ID 427102. doi: 10.5402/2012/427102).

For the current study, researchers tracked 300 patients at two unidentified MS clinics via their charts over a 2-year period from 2014 to 2016. Their median age was 52 years, 76% were women, and 15 had experienced at least one relapse within the previous 24 months.

Dr. Guy Buckle

“Screening for cognitive impairment and depression was documented for only 52% and 63% of MS patients, respectively, and only about a quarter of patients diagnosed with these conditions were referred to a higher level of care,” said lead author Guy J. Buckle, MD, MPH, of the Andrew C. Carlos MS Institute at Shepherd Center in Atlanta.

Among all 300 patients, just 2% and 4% were screened using a validated tool for cognitive impairment and depression, respectively.

The screening often turned up evidence of the conditions: Physicians saw signs of cognitive impairment in 69% and 78% of those screened aged under 65 years and aged 65 and older, respectively, and they detected depression in 71% and 54% of those screened in those two age groups, respectively.

Researchers also noted several disparities. “Cognitive screening was conducted more frequently in older, employed, or white patients, while the presence of cognitive impairment was documented more often in black, nonworking, and those on Medicare or Medicaid,” Dr. Buckle said. “Depression screening was performed most frequently in older or white patients, yet depression was more common in younger, nonworking patients and those on Medicare/Medicaid.”

In another part of their study, researchers surveyed 13 unidentified “national leaders” in MS research and treatment. Just seven said they used validated tools to screen for cognitive impairment and six said they used them to screen for depression.

“We hear from MS specialists that they want to be measuring for cognition but don’t know how to efficiently work it into their routine, how to approach the patient, and what tools to use,” said study coauthor Derrick S. Robertson, MD, of the University of South Florida, Tampa. “In addition, there is no one tool that is accepted in the MS treatment community.”

Dr. Derrick Robertson

MS specialists who didn’t use the screening tests also pointed to factors like lack of reimbursement and lack of integration into electronic medical records. “Doubt very much that neurologists have time to use any of these tests,” one respondent said, referring to cognitive impairment screening.

What’s next? “There are several new exciting developments in clinical trials demonstrating efficacy of disease-modifying therapies in maintaining or improving cognition in patients with relapsing MS,” Dr. Robertson said. “This highlights the urgent need to overcome barriers to use of formal cognitive screening tools in clinical practice to identify patients who need a higher level of care, and perhaps even a change in treatment with the ultimate goal to improve quality of life and overall outcomes.”

Genentech funded the study through an educational grant. Dr. Sapir and three other study authors reported no relevant disclosures. Dr. Buckle and Dr. Robertson reported multiple disclosures, including principle investigator and advisory board/panel member work.

SOURCE: Buckle GJ et al. ACTRIMS Forum 2018, abstract No. P161.

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