Child Psychiatry Consult

Psychopharmacology in primary care faces challenges



NEW YORK – Incorporating psychiatric assessment and treatment into a busy primary care practice is not easy, but it is doable.

“Every time I start a patient on a [psychiatric] medication I have a moment of trepidation, even though I have now done this for about 4 years,” Dr. Diane E. Bloomfield said at a psychopharmacology update held by the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. “It still does not come easily to me,” said Dr. Bloomfield, a general-practice pediatrician at the family care center of Montefiore Medical Center in New York.

Dr. Diane E. Bloomfield

Dr. Diane E. Bloomfield

Inclusion of mental health as part of routine pediatric practice is a new concept. “Until recently, we pediatricians did not think of mental health as part of daily practice,” she said.

Dr. Bloomfield cited three factors that pose the greatest challenges to integrating psychiatry into her practice: time constraints, reimbursement, and knowledge gaps.

Reimbursement limitations contribute to the time issue. Most of Dr. Bloomfield’s patients are covered by Medicaid, which allows for a 15-minute session with each patient and family. That’s barely enough time to assess a child’s social and emotional development, in addition to all the other bases she must cover during an appointment, but she tries to carve out time for more challenging cases by scheduling them near the end of her day.

Dr. Bloomfield said that she routinely administers the Pediatric Symptom Checklist to all her patients who are 4-18 years old. She recommended that pediatricians take advantage of all the screening tools that the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) includes with its practice guidelines, along with the other mental health resources on the AAP website. Using improved coding on her billings also allowed her to arrange reimbursement for more of the time she spends on mental health conditions.

Reducing the knowledge gap can be more complicated. Many pediatricians, Dr. Bloomfield included, did not prescribe methylphenidate or selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) during training. The boxed warning that the Food and Drug Administration put on antidepressants starting in 2004 has been another factor dampening drug psychotherapy by pediatricians, dissuading them from treating depression, she said.

Some of these dilemmas decreased when the AAP released in 2010 two algorithms that provided a framework for identifying and managing mental health and substance abuse concerns in primary care (Pediatrics 2010;125:S109-25). Neither algorithm, however, dealt with psychopharmacology.

Survey results have shown that many pediatricians become more willing to prescribe SSRIs if they can consult with a psychiatrist about the diagnosis and treatment. Pediatricians are generally more comfortable prescribing stimulants for attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). “We see a lot of kids with ADHD, so we think we need to do something for them. In addition, medications for ADHD either work or don’t work, but they don’t cause suicidality,” Dr. Bloomfield said.

An AAP working group that included Dr. Bloomfield recently introduced a pilot program for a revised residency curriculum that includes a mental health module as well as a second module that focuses on anxiety diagnosis and management. In addition, certain states, including Massachusetts and New York, have introduced postresidency education programs that deal with child and adolescent psychiatry, including drug treatment.

Dr. Bloomfield said that she had taken training courses in the New York program. “It gave me the tools for evaluating patients and it taught me how to start medications in a safe way.” The midcareer training she received through New York’s Child and Adolescent Psychiatry for Primary Care program “made me much more confident that I could address my patients’ psychosocial needs.” Today, Dr. Bloomfield said she tries to manage children and adolescents with mild depression herself and not refer them to a specialist.

“Pediatricians are quite willing” to include psychiatric interventions in their practice, but we need support from psychiatrists to receive the necessary education and adequate reimbursement,” Dr. Bloomfield said.

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