A doctor refers to a questionnaire on a chart while consulting with a female patient who exhibits some symptoms of depression.

Primary care physicians should be trained to recognize signs of depression in their patients. Photo: Ilmicrofono Oggiono | Flickr CC.

According to the U.S. Preventative Services Task Force (USPSTF), adults should be screened for depression along other more common issues, such as hypertension or diabetes. The USPSTF is a panel of volunteer experts founded in 1984 to advise Congress on medical issues. They assign their recommendations letter grades, A through D, based on how strong the evidence is or how beneficial the recommendation would be.

In this case, it’s a B recommendation, meaning that there is at least a moderate certainty that instituting such screenings would have a moderate to substantial medical impact. And, on top of that, grade A and B recommendations are covered without cost to patients under the Affordable Care Act.

Between 2009 and 2012, 7% of Americans met the criteria for a depressive disorder. Screening for depression at regular medical exams, which could be done using the nine-question Patient Health Questionnaire, could have a significant impact.

This could be especially valuable in treating postpartum depression in women who have recently given birth. Studies have shown that parents who are depressed can have a variety of negative effects on their children.

The biggest difficulty would be working depression into the larger suite of medical treatment. If doctors screen for depression, they need to take the time to address it and seek a way to treat the issue. Depression is most often treated with psychotherapy, medication, or both. Furthermore, it is essential to determine what caused the current depression, as every individual is different, and every case of depression different still.

In many cases, primary care physicians won’t be able to treat depression, nor will general practitioners, and in fact working with anyone who isn’t a trained professional can worsen a depression or cause psychological damage. The best bet, should doctors begin screening for depression, is to establish connections with local psychiatric professionals to whom patients can be recommended.