Universal mental health screening in pediatric primary care: a systematic review

J Am Acad Child Adolesc Psychiatry. 2013 Nov;52(11):1134-1147.e23. doi: 10.1016/j.jaac.2013.08.013. Epub 2013 Aug 30.


Objective: Universal mental health screening in pediatric primary care is recommended, but studies report slow uptake and low rates of patient follow-through after referral to specialized services. This review examined possible explanations related to the process of screening, focusing on how parents and youth are engaged, and how providers evaluate and use screening results.

Method: A narrative synthesis was developed after a systematic review of 3 databases (plus follow-up of citations, expert recommendations, and checks for multiple publications about the same study). Searching identified 1,188 titles, and of these, 186 full-text articles were reviewed. Two authors extracted data from 45 articles meeting inclusion criteria.

Results: Published studies report few details about how mental health screens were administered, including how clinicians explain their purpose or confidentiality, or whether help was provided for language, literacy, or disability problems. Although they were not addressed directly in the studies reviewed, uptake and detection rates appeared to vary with means of administration. Screening framed as universal, confidential, and intended to optimize attention to patient concerns increased acceptability. Studies said little about how providers were taught to explore screen results. Screening increased referrals, but many still followed negative screens, in some cases because of parent concerns apparently not reflected by screen results but possibly stemming from screen-prompted discussions.

Conclusions: Little research has addressed the process of engaging patients in mental health screening in pediatric primary care or how clinicians can best use screening results. The literature does offer suggestions for better clinical practice and research that may lead to improvements in uptake and outcome.

Keywords: mental health; patient engagement; pediatrics; primary care; screening.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Review
  • Systematic Review

MeSH terms

  • Humans
  • Mass Screening / methods
  • Mass Screening / standards*
  • Mental Health / standards*
  • Pediatrics / methods
  • Pediatrics / standards*
  • Primary Health Care / methods
  • Primary Health Care / standards*