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Cancer. 2012 May 15;118(10):2735-43. doi: 10.1002/cncr.26603. Epub 2011 Oct 11.

Is screening effective in detecting untreated psychiatric disorders among newly diagnosed breast cancer patients?

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  • 1Department of Psychiatry, University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, Philadelphia, PA, USA.



A key purpose of routine distress screening is to ensure that cancer patients receive appropriate mental health care. Most studies validating screening instruments overestimate the effectiveness of screening by not differentiating between patients with untreated disorders and patients who are already being treated. This study adopts the novel strategy of evaluating the effectiveness of screening after correcting for disorder for which treatment is already being provided.


A total of 437 recently diagnosed breast cancer patients received in-clinic distress screening and telephone-based psychiatric interviews. Analyses were conducted using receipt of psychotropic medication for mental health difficulties in the context of a psychiatric disorder as a proxy for identification and treatment.


Rates of elevated distress (33%), major depressive disorder (8%), minor depression (6%), dysthymia (2%), or generalized anxiety disorder (3%) were similar to those in other samples. Thirty-six percent of patients received psychotropic medication around the time of cancer diagnosis, including 64% of those with a current psychiatric diagnosis. Although 39% of patients with elevated distress had a psychiatric disorder, the positive predictive value of screening fell to 15% for an untreated psychiatric disorder and 6% had untreated depression.


Given the high rates of existing treatment, screening may not be efficient for identifying untreated disorder. Almost two-thirds of patients with treated disorders remain symptomatic. Use of symptom scales might reasonably be expanded to surveillance of treatment response or ruling out disorder. Substantial resources would likely be required to coordinate or manage psychiatric care among patients, as would a willingness to intervene in existing relationships with other providers.

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