Screening for distress and depression in cancer settings: 10 lessons from 40 years of primary-care research

Psychooncology. 2011 Jun;20(6):572-84. doi: 10.1002/pon.1943. Epub 2011 Mar 27.


Objective: There has been at least 40 years of active research on screening for depression and distress in primary care. Both successes and failures have been documented. The purpose of this focussed narrative review was to summarise this research and present the key lessons for clinicians and researchers working in psychosocial oncology.

Methods: We searched for studies assessing the utility of screening in primary care in seven electronic bibliographic databases (CENTRAL, CINAHL, Embase, HMIC, Medline, PsycINFO, Web of Knowledge) from inception to December 2010. Results were reviewed and summarised into key areas.

Results: We found that research could be distilled into the following key learning points. (1) Primary care is an important partner in psychosocial care. (2) Both over and under detection are problematic. (3) Barriers to identification involve patient and clinician factors. (4) Acceptability of screening is critical to implementation. (5) Underserved groups need special attention in screening. (6) Patient-clinician trust is an important modifiable variable. (7) Greater contact influences detection. (8) Clinician confidence/skills influence screening success and subsequent action. (9) Training may improve confidence but effects upon long-term outcomes are modest. (10) Screening is generally ineffective without aftercare.

Conclusions: Primary care has shown largely what does not work in relation to screening. Namely relying on clinicians' unassisted judgement without infrastructural support, using over-complex scales with low acceptability, looking for depression alone, using screening without linked treatment, treating in the absence of follow-up and failing to engage patients in their own care. These pitfalls can and should be avoided in psychosocial oncology.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Adjustment Disorders / diagnosis*
  • Adjustment Disorders / psychology
  • Adjustment Disorders / therapy
  • Aftercare / psychology
  • Cooperative Behavior
  • Depressive Disorder / diagnosis*
  • Depressive Disorder / psychology
  • Depressive Disorder / therapy
  • Forecasting
  • Health Services Accessibility / trends
  • Health Services Needs and Demand / trends
  • Humans
  • Interdisciplinary Communication
  • Mass Screening / trends*
  • Neoplasms / psychology*
  • Primary Health Care / trends*
  • Referral and Consultation / trends
  • Research / trends*