Treatment Initiation for New Episodes of Depression in Primary Care Settings

J Gen Intern Med. 2018 Aug;33(8):1283-1291. doi: 10.1007/s11606-017-4297-2. Epub 2018 Feb 8.


Background: Depression is prevalent and costly, but despite effective treatments, is often untreated. Recent efforts to improve depression care have focused on primary care settings. Disparities in treatment initiation for depression have been reported, with fewer minority and older individuals starting treatment.

Objective: To describe patient characteristics associated with depression treatment initiation and treatment choice (antidepressant medications or psychotherapy) among patients newly diagnosed with depression in primary care settings.

Design: A retrospective observational design was used to analyze electronic health record data.

Patients: A total of 241,251 adults newly diagnosed with depression in primary care settings among five health care systems from 2010 to 2013.

Main measures: ICD-9 codes for depression, following a 365-day period with no depression diagnosis or treatment, were used to identify new depression episodes. Treatment initiation was defined as a completed psychotherapy visit or a filled prescription for antidepressant medication within 90 days of diagnosis. Depression severity was measured with Patient Health Questionnaire (PHQ-9) scores on the day of diagnosis.

Key results: Overall, 35.7% of patients with newly diagnosed depression initiated treatment. The odds of treatment initiation among Asians, non-Hispanic blacks, and Hispanics were at least 30% lower than among non-Hispanic whites, controlling for all other variables. The odds of patients aged ≥ 60 years starting treatment were half those of patients age 44 years and under. Treatment initiation increased with depression severity, but was only 53% among patients with a PHQ-9 score of ≥ 10. Among minority patients, psychotherapy was initiated significantly more often than medication.

Conclusions: Screening for depression in primary care is a positive step towards improving detection, treatment, and outcomes for depression. However, study results indicate that treatment initiation remains suboptimal, and disparities persist. A better understanding of patient factors, and particularly system-level factors, that influence treatment initiation is needed to inform efforts by heath care systems to improve depression treatment engagement and to reduce disparities.

Keywords: depression; disparities; primary care; race and ethnicity.

Publication types

  • Multicenter Study
  • Observational Study
  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Antidepressive Agents / therapeutic use*
  • Delivery of Health Care, Integrated / methods
  • Delivery of Health Care, Integrated / statistics & numerical data
  • Depression / diagnosis
  • Depression / therapy*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Patient Acceptance of Health Care / statistics & numerical data
  • Primary Health Care / methods*
  • Primary Health Care / statistics & numerical data
  • Psychotherapy / statistics & numerical data*
  • Retrospective Studies
  • Young Adult


  • Antidepressive Agents