Physicians' decisions to prescribe antidepressant therapy in older patients with depression in a US managed care plan

Drugs Aging. 2011 Jan 1;28(1):51-62. doi: 10.2165/11539900-000000000-00000.


Background: Published studies indicate that depression in older adults is severely under-recognized and under-treated.

Objective: To characterize primary-care physicians' decisions to prescribe antidepressants to older patients with depression.

Methods: Electronic medical record (EMR) notes from office visits of older patients (aged ≥65 years), treated in a central Massachusetts multi-specialty medical group practice, were screened every 2 weeks between August 2007 and July 2008 for mention of depression. Electronic surveys containing questions about depression severity and onset, and antidepressant treatment, were sent to physicians whose EMR notes indicated that they had treated an older patient with depression, until approximately 400 responses had been received. Physicians were asked about whether they prescribed antidepressants or made changes to antidepressant treatment and were asked about the extent to which they agreed with a set of pre-specified reasons for treatment recommendations. Physicians were also allowed to document any other reasons that influenced their decision. Patient characteristics and treatment were identified from administrative claims. Univariate analyses were used to describe patient characteristics and physician survey responses.

Results: Physicians responded to the survey and confirmed a depression diagnosis for 396 patients, for whom the average age was 77.1 years and 76.5% were female. Most patients had physician-reported depression onset after age 60 years (72.2%) and moderately severe depression (58.8%). Physicians reported that 62.9% of patients were already being treated with antidepressants prior to their visit, 28.5% were recommended antidepressant initiation and 8.6% were not prescribed antidepressants. Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors were most frequently prescribed. Maintaining prior therapy was recommended for 81.1% of treated patients and treatment modification for 18.9%. Almost all physicians (>92%) agreed that experience in use of prescription drugs, safety/tolerability and patient improvement influenced their decision to maintain prior therapy or recommend new therapy. 85.8% of physicians agreed that availability of efficacy data in the elderly influenced their decision to prescribe new therapy. 38.9% of patients who were recommended new therapy initiation did not fill an antidepressant prescription.

Conclusions: Despite previous reports of under-treatment of depression in the elderly, this study suggests that physicians are comfortable prescribing antidepressants to the elderly, and the majority of older patients with depression were prescribed antidepressants. Rather than a physician's prescribing decision, it may be patient factors, such as refusal to accept diagnosis/treatment and noncompliance, that may lead to under-treatment--approximately 40% of patients who were recommended new antidepressant therapy did not fill an antidepressant prescription.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Age Factors
  • Aged
  • Aged, 80 and over
  • Antidepressive Agents / administration & dosage
  • Antidepressive Agents / therapeutic use*
  • Decision Making
  • Depression / drug therapy*
  • Depression / physiopathology
  • Electronic Health Records
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Managed Care Programs
  • Massachusetts
  • Medication Adherence
  • Physicians, Primary Care / statistics & numerical data
  • Practice Patterns, Physicians' / statistics & numerical data*
  • Severity of Illness Index
  • Surveys and Questionnaires
  • Treatment Refusal


  • Antidepressive Agents