The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force published draft guidance last week recommending that doctors evaluate all patients under the age of 65 for signs of anxiety. The recommendations are intended to help primary care physicians diagnose patients suffering from anxiety disorders during preventive care visits. The proposal is open for public comment until October 17; however, the task force usually affirms its draft guidance.

NPR’s Michel Martin recently interviewed Lori Pbert, a member of the task force, clinical psychologist, and a professor at the University of Massachusetts Chan Medical School, on the recent draft recommendation.

Although the health panel began their research before the pandemic, Professor Pbert acknowledges that the findings are very timely, with employee mental health reaching a critical point due to pandemic-induced stress. The World Health Organization reported earlier this year that anxiety and depression increased by 25% during the first year of the pandemic. Pbert notes that anxiety disorders are among the most common mental health complaints, affecting about 40% of U.S. women at some point in their lives and more than one in four men.

Shortage Of Mental Health Services

Diagnosing anxiety disorders during the brief patient interactions afforded through routine care has long been a challenge for clinicians. One study cited by the task force found the median time for initiating treatment for anxiety is 23 years. Doctors are already asked to cover a wide range of conditions in what can be a packed 15-minute appointment. The panel is recommending targeted questionnaires and screening tools to determine if warning signs exist that would warrant a referral to a mental health specialist.

One concern raised by the medical community is the potential for misdiagnosis, especially when there is already a shortage of mental health professionals. Professor Pbert acknowledges the importance of distinguishing between everyday concerns and those fears or worries that interfere with everyday activities, which is indicative of anxiety disorder.

A larger challenge is finding mental health services given the shortage of specialists. Patients have reported waiting months to meet with a therapist, and others are forced to weigh the potential benefits of therapy sessions with the relatively high cost of care.

What Employers Can Do To Help

Since anxiety screenings will be completed by primary care physicians, it is even more important to encourage employees to get their annual physical. Meeting with a doctor once per year ensures that employees undergo appropriate physical and mental health screenings and creates opportunities to develop a strong patient-physician relationship over time. Often, the completion of an annual physical is an integrated component of an employee wellness program.

Offering direct access to therapists as an employee benefit is another impactful strategy that can make a big difference for workers. Employees may find it easier to interact with a therapist virtually in the comfort of their own home.

Employers can also help educate employees on the importance of prioritizing self-care. A holistic program that engages employees in gratitude exercises, mindfulness classes, healthy sleep tips, and other dimensions of wellness can help workers manage stress and anxiety.

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