Routine Anxiety Screening Recommended
for Women

Heidi Splete

June 17, 2020

Women and girls aged 13 years and older with no current diagnosis of anxiety should be screened routinely for anxiety, according to a new recommendation from the Women's Preventive Services Initiative.

The lifetime prevalence of anxiety disorders in women in the United States is 40%, approximately twice that of men, and anxiety can be a manifestation of underlying issues including posttraumatic stress, sexual harassment, and assault, wrote Kimberly D. Gregory, MD, of Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, Los Angeles, and colleagues on behalf of the Women's Preventive Services Initiative (WPSI), a national coalition of women's health professional organizations and patient representatives.

"The WPSI based its rationale for anxiety screening on several considerations," the researchers noted. "Anxiety disorders are the most prevalent mental health disorders in women, and the problems created by untreated anxiety can impair function in all areas of a woman's life."

"Effective screening may lead to earlier or timelier treatment (including behavioral and medical interventions) and result in improved clinical outcomes, such as symptoms, function, and quality of life. Screening may also lead to the detection of associated conditions, such as depression and posttraumatic stress disorder, which may also require treatment," they wrote.

To support the recommendation, the researchers evaluated data from 33 studies and 2 systematic reviews for a total of 171 studies. Most studies included screening instruments that involved clinician- or patient-administered questionnaires designed for use in clinical practice.

Although none of the studies evaluated the overall effectiveness versus harm of screening for anxiety, the strength of evidence for the effectiveness of anxiety treatment ranged from moderate to high, and the evidence of harms ranged from low for cognitive-behavioral therapy to moderate for anxiety medications.

"Overall, the WPSI determined that the balance of benefits and harms would likely be favorable on the basis of the high prevalence of anxiety in women; its substantial effect on health, function, and quality of life; and evidence on the accuracy of screening instruments in primary care settings and the effectiveness and harms of treatment," the researchers wrote.

Although anxiety screening is not currently routine in clinical practice in the United States, such screening could be done quickly and efficiently as part of an intake visit in a primary care or obstetric setting, using a brief screening tool similar to those used for depression, the researchers wrote. The goal of anxiety screening, as with depression screening, is to identify those who need further evaluation to diagnose or rule out an anxiety disorder.

"A revised version [of the draft recommendation] was adopted by the Health Resources and Services Administration in December 2019; it will be incorporated into the summary of covered benefits for preventive services without cost sharing as required by the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act immediately or no later than 1 January 2021, depending on individual coverage," the researchers noted.

"Covered benefits apply to most group health plans and issuers of group and individual health insurance coverage, as well as to persons who qualify for Medicaid on the basis of Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act," they wrote.

"Because anxiety disorders can be successfully treated, early detection through the use of a brief questionnaire could prevent years of symptoms and impairment in the lives of women at every stage of life," they concluded.

Aaron Sutton, LCSW, a behavioral health consultant at Abington (Pa.) Hospital–Jefferson Health, expressed support for the guidelines in an interview.

"With almost half of all women experiencing an anxiety disorder sometime in their life, effective recognition and treatment of anxiety disorders is needed," he said.

Mr. Sutton described treatment as being "fairly benign" with the initial approach being cognitive-behavioral therapy, a form of psychological talk therapy, and first-line pharmacologic therapies being SSRIs and serotonin norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors.

Mr. Sutton also explained how he expects effective screening and treatment will benefit women with anxiety and the health care system.

"Women will see improvement in areas such as personal relationships, work, school, and social settings. The health care system will see benefits as costs related to anxiety disorders, be it direct or indirect, are in the billions of dollars," he said.

Although screening for anxiety will increase the workload of primary care physicians, anxiety screening should be included and could perhaps be administered in conjunction with the routine depression screening already recommended as part of primary care visits, Mr. Sutton noted.

"Anxiety disorders can be successfully treated, and early detection can prevent years of symptoms and impairment," he emphasized.

"Anxiety often occurs among adolescents and adult women and often becomes a chronic problem with impairments," said Cynthia Pfeffer, MD, professor of psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medicine, New York, in an interview. "Screening for anxiety could identify and enable planning to decrease and prevent this impairing prevalent condition and its associated problems. For example, anxiety can impair adolescents' academic and social functioning and if this is lasting also impair their success in work and future planning for families. There are successful treatments for anxiety and identification of individuals at an early time may prevent impairments in daily functioning."

Dr. Pfeffer noted that steps to overcome barriers to prevention and treatment for anxiety include "educating health care professionals about the problems caused from anxiety, learning means to identify and diagnose anxiety, and developing proficiency in offering methods to prevent and intervene for women with symptoms of anxiety."

The take-home message for clinicians is that anxiety is prevalent among females of all ages and often begins early and becomes chronic.

"There are excellent treatments including psychotherapy and medication that can decrease and prevent anxiety," she emphasized. "Training practicing clinicians including MDs as well as other professionals in the health care system about anxiety will enhance the wellbeing of women."

More research is needed to evaluate methods used during health care visits for anxiety screening and treatment in order to determine valid means of preventing the impairments associated with anxiety, Dr. Pfeffer said.

Mr. Sutton noted that no trials "have evaluated overall effectiveness or potential harms including labeling, misdiagnosis, and overdiagnosis." Other areas in need of research include the changes in incidence and prevalence of anxiety over time, as well as specific risk factors including marriage, divorce, pregnancy, and childbirth, he added.

The research for the recommendation was supported by the Health Resources and Services Administration. The researchers had no financial conflicts to disclose. Mr. Sutton had no financial conflicts to disclose. Dr. Pfeffer has written extensively on depression and anxiety in children, adolescents, and adults. She had no financial conflicts to disclose.

SOURCE: Gregory KD et al. Ann Intern Med. 2020 June 9. doi: 10.7326/M20-0580.

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