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A Practice-Based Evaluation of Distress Screening Protocol Adherence and Medical Service Utilization

Brad Zebrack, Karen Kayser, Deborah Bybee, Lynne Padgett, Laura Sundstrom, Chad Jobin, and Julianne Oktay

Background: This study examined the extent to which cancer programs demonstrated adherence to their own prescribed screening protocol, and whether adherence to that protocol was associated with medical service utilization. The hypothesis is that higher rates of service utilization are associated with lower rates of adherence to screening protocols. Methods: Oncology social workers at Commission on Cancer–accredited cancer programs reviewed electronic health records (EHRs) in their respective cancer programs during a 2-month period in 2014. Rates of overall adherence to a prescribed distress screening protocol were calculated based on documentation in the EHR that screening adherence and an appropriate clinical response had occurred. We examined documentation of emergency department (ED) use and hospitalization within 2 months after the screening visit. Results: Review of 8,409 EHRs across 55 cancer centers indicated that the overall adherence rate to screening protocols was 62.7%. The highest rates of adherence were observed in Community Cancer Programs (76.3%) and the lowest rates were in NCI-designated Cancer Centers (43.3%). Rates of medical service utilization were significantly higher than expected when overall protocol adherence was lacking. After controlling for patient and institutional characteristics, risk ratios for ED use (0.82) and hospitalization (0.81) suggest that when overall protocol adherence was documented, 18% to 19% fewer patients used these medical services. Conclusions: The observed associations between a mandated psychosocial care protocol and medical service utilization suggest opportunities for operational efficiencies and costs savings. Further investigations of protocol integrity, as well as the clinical care models by which psychosocial care is delivered, are warranted.