Written by Chris Thomas
TEACHING GPs to be more empathetic may reduce the prevalence of depression, self-harm and suicidal thoughts in older patients, a study has found.
Published in the Annals of Family Medicine, the biggest study of depression in older people in Australia was conducted by UWA researchers with more than 370 GPs and almost 22,000 patients taking part in the two-year project.
It found a physician’s empathy and willingness to discuss the emotional concerns of patients might play an important role in reducing thoughts of self-harm and depression.
Chief investigator Winthrop Professor Osvaldo Almeida, from UWA’s Centre for Health and Ageing, says some of the GPs—the control group—received no structured education while others had their practice reviewed with individualised feedback and received relevant educational material and six-monthly newsletters.
“We found the mental health outcome of the patients treated by GPs in the intervention group was better than that of the controls,” he says.
“These differences could not be explained by greater use of psychotropic medications such as antidepressants.
“The most likely explanation for our findings is that GPs in the intervention group improved the way they approach and manage older adults with depression or suicide ideation, possibly by asking more relevant questions and providing feedback/advice more relevant to patients.”
Between five and 10 per cent of people over 60 suffer from depression and it is predicted depression will be the second leading cause of disability worldwide within the next 10 years.
“Our results are exciting because they indicate that we may be able to decrease the prevalence of depression and self-harm behaviour in the community by means of targeted education of health professionals,” Professor Almeida says.
“They also suggest that, in some instances, the relationship between patients and physicians might be more therapeutic than the drugs they prescribe.
“The most important thing is to offer GPs access to quick and effective ways to assess and manage older people with depression or suicidal ideation.
Professor Almeida says the improved outcome of patients took place within the constraints of normal clinical practice and described the study’s interventions as simple and inexpensive.
But he indicated replication of the results would be required before the study’s activities could be recommended for adoption in normal clinical practice.