Development and use of a clinical decision support tool for behavioral health screening in primary care clinics

Appl Clin Inform. 2017 Apr 26;8(2):412-429. doi: 10.4338/ACI-2016-04-RA-0068.


Objective: Screening, brief intervention, and referral for treatment (SBIRT) for behavioral health (BH) is a key clinical process. SBIRT tools in electronic health records (EHR) are infrequent and rarely studied. Our goals were 1) to design and implement SBIRT using clinical decision support (CDS) in a commercial EHR; and 2) to conduct a pragmatic evaluation of the impact of the tools on clinical outcomes.

Methods: A multidisciplinary team designed SBIRT workflows and CDS tools. We analyzed the outcomes using a retrospective descriptive convenience cohort with age-matched comparison group. Data extracted from the EHR were evaluated using descriptive statistics.

Results: There were 2 outcomes studied: 1) development and use of new BH screening tools and workflows; and 2) the results of use of those tools by a convenience sample of 866 encounters. The EHR tools developed included a flowsheet for documenting screens for 3 domains (depression, alcohol use, and prescription misuse); and 5 alerts with clinical recommendations based on screening; and reminders for annual screening. Positive screen rate was 21% (≥1 domain) with 60% of those positive for depression. Screening was rarely positive in 2 domains (11%), and never positive in 3 domains. Positive and negative screens led to higher rates of documentation of brief intervention (BI) compared with a matched sample who did not receive screening, including changes in psychotropic medications, updated BH terms on the problem list, or referral for BH intervention. Clinical process outcomes changed even when screening was negative.

Conclusions: Modified workflows for BH screening and CDS tools with clinical recommendations can be deployed in the EHR. Using SBIRT tools changed clinical process metrics even when screening was negative, perhaps due to conversations about BH not captured in the screening flowsheet. Although there are limitations to the study, results support ongoing investigation.

Keywords: Electronic health records; SBIRT; behavioral medicine; clinical decision support systems; depression.

MeSH terms

  • Behavioral Medicine / methods*
  • Decision Support Systems, Clinical / statistics & numerical data*
  • Electronic Health Records
  • Humans
  • Mass Screening / methods*
  • Primary Health Care*
  • Workflow

Grants and funding

Funding This research was made possible in part by a grant from the Vermont Health Improvement Program at the University of Vermont (PI: Dr. Thomas Peterson).