National Trends in the Outpatient Treatment of Depression

Published in: JAMA, The Journal of the American Medical Association, v. 287, no. 2, Jan. 9, 2002, p. 203-209

Posted on RAND.org on December 31, 2001

by Mark Olfson, Steven C. Marcus, Benjamin Druss, Lynn Elinson, Terri Tanielian, Harold Alan Pincus

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CONTEXT: Recent advances in pharmacotherapy and changing health care environments have focused increased attention on trends in outpatient treatment of depression. OBJECTIVE: To compare trends in outpatient treatment of depressive disorders in the United States in 1987 and 1997. DESIGN and SETTING: Analysis of service utilization data from 2 nationally representative surveys of the US general population, the 1987 National Medical Expenditure Survey (N = 34 459) and the 1997 Medical Expenditure Panel Survey (N = 32 636). PARTICIPANTS: Respondents who reported making 1 or more outpatient visits for treatment of depression during that calendar year. MAIN OUTCOME MEASURES: Rate of treatment, psychotropic medication use, psychotherapy, number of outpatient treatment visits, type of health care professional, and source of payment. RESULTS: The rate of outpatient treatment for depression increased from 0.73 per 100 persons in 1987 to 2.33 in 1997 (P<.001). The proportion of treated individuals who used antidepressant medications increased from 37.3% to 74.5% (P<.001), whereas the proportion who received psychotherapy declined (71.1% vs 60.2%, P = .006). The mean number of depression treatment visits per user declined from 12.6 to 8.7 per year (P = .05). An increasingly large proportion of patients were treated by physicians for their condition (68.9% vs 87.3%, P<.001), and treatment costs were more often covered by third-party payers (39.3% to 55.2%, P<.001). CONCLUSIONS: Between 1987 and 1997, there was a marked increase in the proportion of the population who received outpatient treatment for depression. Treatment became characterized by greater involvement of physicians, greater use of psychotropic medications, and expanding availability of third-party payment, but fewer outpatient visits and less use of psychotherapy. These changes coincided with the advent of better-tolerated antidepressants, increased penetration of managed care, and the development of rapid and efficient procedures for diagnosing depression in clinical practice.

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