Pediatric Provider Processes for Behavioral Health Screening, Decision Making, and Referral in Sites With Colocated Mental Health Services
Validated behavioral health (BH) screens are recommended for use at well-child visits. This study aimed to explore how pediatricians experience and use these screens for subsequent care decisions in primary care. The study took place at 4 safety net health centers. Fourteen interviews were conducted with pediatricians who were mandated to use validated BH screens at well-child visits. Interview questions focused on key domains, including clinic BH context, screening processes, assessment of screening scores, and decision making about referral to mental health services. Qualitative analysis used the Framework Approach. A variety of themes emerged: BH screens were well accepted and valued for the way they facilitated discussion of mental health issues. However, screening results were not always used in the way that instrument designers intended. Providers' beliefs about the face validity of the instruments, and their observations about performance of instruments, led to discounting scored results. As a result, clinical decisions were made based on a variety of evidence, including individual item responses, parent or patient concerns, and perceived readiness for treatment. Additionally, providers, although interested in expanding their mental health discussions, perceived a lack of time and of their own skills to be major obstacles in this pursuit. Screens act as important prompts to stimulate discussion of BH problems, but their actual scored results play a variable role in problem identification and treatment decisions. Modifications to scheduling policies, additional provider training, and enhanced collaboration with mental health professionals could support better BH integration in pediatric primary care.