Cost-effectiveness of treatments for major depression in primary care practice

Arch Gen Psychiatry. 1998 Jul;55(7):645-51. doi: 10.1001/archpsyc.55.7.645.


Background: This study augments a randomized controlled trial to analyze the cost-effectiveness of 2 standardized treatments for major depression relative to each other and to the "usual care" provided by primary care physicians.

Methods: A randomized controlled trial was conducted in which primary care patients meeting DSM-III-R criteria for current major depression were assigned to pharmacotherapy (where nortriptyline hydrochloride was given) or interpersonal psychotherapy provided in a standardized framework or a primary physician's usual care. Two outcome measures, depression-free days and quality-adjusted days, were developed using information on depressive symptoms over time. The costs of care were calculated. Cost-effectiveness ratios comparing the incremental outcomes with the incremental costs for the different treatments were estimated. Sensitivity analyses were performed.

Results: In terms of both economic costs and quality-of-life outcomes, patients assigned to the pharmacotherapy group did slightly better than those assigned to interpersonal psychotherapy. Both standardized therapies provided better outcomes than primary physician's usual care, but each consumed more resources. No meaningful cost-offsets were found. The incremental direct cost per additional depression-free day for pharmacotherapy relative to usual care ranges from $12.66 to $16.87 which translates to direct cost per quality-adjusted year gained from $11270 to $19510.

Conclusions: Standardized treatments for depression lead to better outcomes than usual care but also lead to higher costs. However, the estimates of the cost per quality-of-life year gained for standardized pharmacotherapy are comparable with those found for other treatments provided in routine practice.

Publication types

  • Clinical Trial
  • Randomized Controlled Trial
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Combined Modality Therapy
  • Cost-Benefit Analysis
  • Depressive Disorder / drug therapy
  • Depressive Disorder / economics
  • Depressive Disorder / therapy*
  • Female
  • Health Care Costs
  • Health Services / statistics & numerical data
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Nortriptyline / economics
  • Nortriptyline / therapeutic use
  • Primary Health Care / economics*
  • Psychiatric Status Rating Scales
  • Psychotherapy / economics
  • Quality-Adjusted Life Years
  • Severity of Illness Index
  • Treatment Outcome


  • Nortriptyline