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Natalie Riblet, Karen Skalla, Auden McClure, Karen Homa, Alison Luciano, and Thomas H. Davis

This study sought to improve mental health care for patients with head and neck cancers (HNCs) through the implementation of an evidence-based process for identifying and managing psychological distress. This process in an HNC medical oncology clinic was assessed and redesigned using quality improvement (QI) methods from November 2010 through April 2012. The redesign, starting in January 2011, involved a 2-component QI intervention: the validated NCCN Distress Thermometer and an evidence-based treatment decision algorithm. Screening processes were improved through Plan-Do-Study-Act (PDSA) cycles. Before January 2011, distress identification was based on a provider's clinical assessment. Cause-effect diagramming suggested that lack of a formalized process for distress assessment contributed to missed diagnoses. Providers were also unfamiliar with mental health resources. After implementing process changes, biweekly distress screening rates rose from 0% to 38% between January and July 2011. Furthermore, with additional PDSA cycles, these rates increased to 74% between October 2011 and April 2012. Similar to proposed benchmarks, 84% (n=47) of newly diagnosed patients (n=56) were screened. Improvement in screening was attributed to process changes and involvement of senior leadership. QI principles can be applied to the cancer setting in order to create systems of care which more reliably identify and address the needs of patients with psychological distress.