Primary care screening in several key areas including maternal depression and developmental delay increased significantly after practices implemented a quality improvement (QI) program, according to data from 19 pediatric primary care practices in 12 states.

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Screening for developmental delay, maternal depression, and autism spectrum disorder are recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics; screening for social-emotional problems and social determinants of health also are recommended. However, “Practices face challenges in implementing recommended screenings simultaneously,” wrote Kori B. Flower, MD, MPH, of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and colleagues in Pediatrics.

To support practices in screening, the researchers developed a national QI collaborative. “Aims were to improve screening processes, including screening, discussion, referral, and follow-up,” the researchers wrote.

In the study published in Pediatrics, the researchers reviewed data from 19 pediatric practices in 12 states, including independent, academic, hospital-affiliated, and multispecialty group practices and community health centers for diversity in type, size, location, and patient population.

The improvement program included two full-day sessions of in-person learning, separated by a 9-month action period that included virtual learning through webinars and online resources, monthly data collection to assess progress, and coaching. “Coaches used reports to guide virtual learning content and provide individual feedback to practices,” the researchers said.

Overall, after a year, the largest screening increases from baseline occurred for maternal depression (from 27% to 87%) and social determinants of health (from 26% to 76%). Screening also increased significantly for developmental delays (from 60% to 93%), and autism spectrum disorder (from 74% to 95%).

Statistically significant increases in discussion of screening results occurred for all screening areas: developmental delays (from 63% to 97%), autism spectrum disorder (from 51% to 93%), maternal depression (from 46% to 90%), and social determinants of health (from 19% to 73%).

In addition, significant increases in referrals were seen for development (from 53% to 86%) and maternal depression (from 23% to 100%).

EHR packages deficiencies seen as barrier

“Standard EHR packages often lack features for documenting and tracking screenings, and this was a persistent barrier to screening improvement,” Dr. Flower and associates noted. However, the percentage of practices citing EHR challenges as a barrier to screening decreased from 41% at baseline to 24% after the intervention.

Parents also reported increased discussion of screening and referrals, but “[o]n overall rating of care, the percentage of parents rating care as above average or best did not change,” but parents were not asked reasons for their care rating, the researchers wrote.

The study findings were limited by several factors including limited data quality control and insufficient data to assess the effects of screening interventions on other preventive services or other office-based factors such as revenue, the researchers noted. However, the results suggest that shared learning can help primary care practices increase screening.

“Careful attention to integrating screenings in visit flow and emphasizing their potential impact on child health can make implementation possible in multiple screening areas,” Dr. Flower and colleagues concluded.

Making measurable, meaningful practice change

Barbara J. Howard, MD, commented: “It is clear that using validated tools to screen have benefits in accuracy, equity, efficiency, and income. Increasingly, practices are being judged and paid based on ‘value,’ which is especially difficult to measure in pediatrics with its low rates of serious chronic conditions to assess. We pediatricians will be judged on use of proven methods instead, and screening is a major criterion and also, fortunately, one that is within our power to change.

“However, as this study shows, a great deal of effort and teamwork is needed to shift office workflows to incorporate screening, discussions, referral, and follow-up – all necessary processes for screening to be of value. It is broadly recognized in all industries, not just health care, that use of QI processes is a major force in facilitating change in standard practices. The American Board of Pediatrics, as well as the American Academy of Pediatrics, recognizes this need and has been assisting as well as requiring use of QI methods.

“This study specifically selected a range of practices characteristic of U.S. providers to demonstrate that both screening for multiple child health risk factors simultaneously and use of methods of QI can be feasible and effective for measurable and meaningful practice change. This should give all pediatricians encouragement to move forward in implementing changes in screening,” Dr. Howard, of Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, said in an interview.

This study not only showed the effectiveness of change management, but also detailed the effort it required, including:

  • Use of monthly team meetings.
  • Collecting data from patients and team members.
  • Soliciting parent feedback.
  • Implementing new templates for care.
  • Use of tool translations or translator support.
  • Involving colocated professionals, residents, and students.
  • Assembling resources.
  • Attempting to invoke change in EHR vendor.

“There were expert coaches involved of national prominence and extensive QI experience. Even with all this support and effort, it should be noted that 74% of practices had participated in QI efforts previously, which should have made this project easier, and even then it took 6-7 months before measurable change in practice could be documented. In spite of the fact that actually getting help for problems identified is the goal, referrals were only marginally improved, and the tracking of referrals was not significantly improved even with all this effort,” Dr. Howard noted.

“Of note, the practices reported at the end of the project that fewer practices reported lack of time or resources for screening and referral. As a result of this publication, a slimmed down set of practice report measures might be chosen to make future QI efforts work and be measurable in meaningful ways. Instead of paper chart reviews, data from electronic screening could be automatically collected in the course of care. Referral processes could likewise be made electronic and automated, including tracking their success, not just those through a local EHR. Integration of Software as a Service with EHRs could make this data collection – that is essential to both QI and actual good care – seamless. Templates and checklists, as well as more incidental knowledge gained from this and other QI projects in pediatric practices, should be shared. While each practice operates somewhat differently, the differences are not that great and, in some cases, traditional ways of doing things would be fruitfully discarded,” suggested Dr. Howard, who was not involved in the study.

“While the pediatricians participated in the QI sessions, it is clear that the QI processes depend on the entire practice team, and generally, the team members more critical to success are not the doctor but the front desk receptionist, medical assistants, and the practice managers – as these individuals conduct or oversee workflow activities. Future QI interventions might include reinforcement and acknowledgment of these team members through inclusion in parallel continuing education activities from the American Association of Medical Assistants and the Medical Group Management Association continuing education credits,” she said.

Dr. Howard continued, “Of note, these studies were completed prior to the pandemic-related workflow changes including telehealth visits and requirements to minimize waiting room time and activities for the safety of patients and staff. These disruptive forces and the likelihood that telehealth alternatives will persist in primary care suggest that the traditional paper waiting room questionnaires are likely to have to give way to electronic alternatives. Using all electronic [approaches] will be the best unified workflow.”

The study was supported by the JPB Foundation through support to the American Academy of Pediatrics. The researchers had no financial conflicts to disclose. Dr. Howard is a pediatric founder of CHADIS, an online screening, decision support, patient education, and referral/tracking system in use nationally and implemented using QI processes. CHADIS is distributed by Total Child Health, of which Dr. Howard is president. Use of CHADIS for Part 4 Maintenance of Certification QI programs is under the ABMS portfolio sponsorship of the nonprofit Center for Promotion of Child Development through Primary Care, directed by her husband, Raymond Sturner, MD.

SOURCE: Flower KB et al. Pediatrics. 2020 Aug 7. doi: 10.1542/peds.2019-2328.