Depression Care Following Psychiatric Hospitalization in the Veterans Health Administration

Different patient characteristics predict adequate antidepressant treatment after hospitalization, received by 58.7% of patients, versus adequate psychotherapy, received by 12.9% of patients.
Published Online: September 09, 2011
Paul N. Pfeiffer, MD; Dara Ganoczy, MPH; Nicholas W. Bowersox, PhD; John F. McCarthy, PhD; Frederic C. Blow, PhD; and Marcia Valenstein, MD

Objectives: To assess quality of depression care during the high-risk period following a psychiatric hospitalization.


Study Design: Retrospective administrative data analysis.

Methods: Using Veterans Health Administration (VHA) administrative data, we assessed mental health follow-up within 7 and 30 days of psychiatric hospitalizations for major depression from 2004 to 2008. Adequate antidepressant medication coverage and number of psychotherapy visits were assessed within 90 days of discharge. Multivariable logistic regression was used to identify patient demographic and clinical characteristics associated with each quality indicator.


Results: Of the 45,587 patients discharged from a psychiatric inpatient stay with a diagnosis of major depressive disorder, 39.4% and 75.8% received an outpatient visit within 7 and 30 days of discharge, respectively; 58.7% of patients received adequate antidepressant coverage (72 of 90 days) and 12.9% received adequate psychotherapy encounters (8 visits). Receipt of outpatient mental health visits and of adequate psychotherapy were less likely among patients who were male, aged <35 or >65 years, had >3 major general medical comorbidities, lived >30 miles from a VHA clinic, or whose hospital length of stay was <7 days. Patients with comorbid substance use disorders were less likely to receive adequate antidepressant treatment.


Conclusions: To optimize evidence-based depression care after a psychiatric hospitalization, health systems might increase receipt of psychotherapy by considering potential barriers related to age, medical condition, and distance. Patients with comorbid substance use disorders or their providers may need additional services to support antidepressant treatment.

(Am J Manag Care. 2011;17(9):e358-e364)

To enhance treatment of depression during the high-risk period following a psychiatric hospitalization, health systems should:


  • Ensure timely access to outpatient mental health care and consider additional transition support, particularly for patients without mental health encounters prior to their psychiatric admission.


  • Increase receipt of an adequate course of psychotherapy. Patients aged either <35 or >65 years, those with >3 serious medical comorbidities, and those residing >30 miles from a clinic were particularly less likely to receive psychotherapy.


  • Increase antidepressant medication coverage for depressed patients with comorbid substance use disorders.
Immediately following discharge from a psychiatric hospitalization, patients are at high risk for functional impairment, rehospitalization, and suicide.1-3 Suicide risk is high among depressed patients, and it is nearly 5 times higher during the 12 weeks after a psychiatric hospitalization compared with other time periods.4,5 To reduce risks of adverse outcomes, it is important for health systems to optimize the quality of depression care immediately following psychiatric hospitalization.

Quality of post-discharge depression care encompasses several domains, including timeliness of follow-up with outpatient mental health providers and the delivery of an adequate course of antidepressant treatment or psychotherapy. To date, research studies of factors associated with postdischarge follow-up have not focused on care for patients with depression. Among general populations of psychiatric inpatients, nearly half of patients that schedule a post-hospitalization follow-up appointment do not show up for the first appointment, and slightly less than half have no follow-up within 30 days of discharge.6,7 Prior studies of depression-treatment indicators have focused on new and recurrent episodes of depression in predominantly outpatient settings, rather than during the high-risk, post-hospital period.8,9 One study of patients diagnosed with depression measured adherence to antidepressant medication regimens following a psychiatric hospitalization and found nearly half had inadequate adherence; however, the study excluded patients with no follow-up appointments and did not examine antidepressant treatment in the context of other quality indicators.10

In this study, we examined administrative data from the Veterans Health Administration (VHA) to determine the patient characteristics associated with the quality of post-hospital depression care across various quality indicators. The VHA provides comprehensive inpatient and outpatient specialty mental health care to eligible veterans and has an electronic medical record system to support communication between inpatient and outpatient services and across facilities. By describing factors affecting post-hospital care in a large integrated health system, study findings may inform both VHA and non-VHA efforts to improve post-hospital transition care.


Data Source and Study Population

Patient data were obtained from the VHA’s National Registry for Depression, which includes comprehensive inpatient and outpatient records, including diagnoses, pharmacy records, and demographic information on all patients receiving treatment for depression within the VHA.11 Patients were included if they received a diagnosis of major depressive disorder (MDD; International Classification of Diseases, 9th Edition, Clinical Modification [ICD-9-CM] codes 296.3 or 296.2) during an inpatient psychiatric hospitalization between fiscal years 2004 and 2008. We excluded patients who had diagnoses of bipolar disorder, schizoaffective disorder, or schizophrenia, because these patients may require substantially different post-discharge care. The study was conducted following an institutional review board approval of database analyses through the Veterans Affairs Ann Arbor Healthcare System.

Quality Indicators

For each patient, we identified the first inpatient psychiatric stay that included a diagnosis of MDD during the study period and used the discharge date from that hospitalization as the index discharge date. Adequacy of outpatient follow-up was determined using 2 indicators: whether patients received an outpatient visit with a mental health provider within 7 days and within 30 days of the index discharge date. These have been included as measures in the National Committee for Quality Assurance’s Healthcare Effectiveness Data and Information Set (HEDIS), which tracks performance on health-related quality measures among commercial, Medicare, and Medicaid health plans within the United States.12 Analysis of these measures was limited to patients who did not have another inpatient admission within 7 or 30 days, respectively.

Adequacy of antidepressant treatment was determined by whether patients received at least a 72-day supply of an antidepressant during the initial 90 days following the index discharge date and refilled their medication at least once after their initial discharge prescription. A similar measure was shown to predict decreased odds of psychiatric hospitalization among VHA outpatients initiating treatment for depression.2 Coverage for 72 out of 90 days corresponds to a medication possession ratio of 0.80 (80%), a commonly used cut off for adequacy of medication receipt.13 The requirement of at least 1 refill was chosen so that a large initial prescription would not automatically satisfy the measure. Adequate psychotherapy was defined as the receipt of 8 individual or group psychotherapy visits (Current Procedural Technology [CPT] codes: 90804-90815, 90845, 90847, 90849, 90853, 90857) during the 90-day period following the index discharge date. These CPT codes include insight-oriented, behavior-modifying, supportive, family, and multi-family psychotherapy and psychoanalysis. A cut-off of 8 visits was used for adequate treatment based on manualized clinical trials of psychotherapy for depression and prior retrospective studies of psychotherapy adequacy.14 Analysis of receipt of adequate antidepressant treatment and adequate psychotherapy in the 90 days following psychiatric hospitalization was limited to patients who had <30 inpatient days during the follow-up period.


Demographic characteristics included age (categorized as <35, 35-49, 50-64, 65-79, 80 years), gender, race (white, black, other, unknown), Hispanic ethnicity, and marital status (married or unmarried). The distance patients lived from their nearest VHA facility was approximated using a straightline distance from the population centroid of the patient’s ZIP code of residence (categorized as <30 miles, 30 to 60 miles, or >60 miles).

Comorbid mental health conditions diagnosed during the index hospitalization were categorized as substance use disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), other anxiety disorders, or personality disorder. General medical comorbidity was measured using the Charlson Comorbidity Index15 and scores were categorized as 0 (least morbidity), 1-2, or >3.

Length of stay during the index hospitalization was categorized as <7 days, 7 to 14 days, 15 to 30 days, or >30 days. We also created indicators of whether patients had mental health visits, received antidepressant treatment, or received psychotherapy in the 90 days before the index hospitalization.

Continuous variables (eg, age, distance, inpatient length of stay) were categorized to facilitate interpretation of resulting odds ratios (ORs) and because prior studies have demonstrated non-linear relationships between patient characteristics, such as age and depression care.16


We calculated the frequencies of each quality indicator by each of the covariates. In bivariate analyses for each covariate, we used X2 tests to determine whether there were significant differences in receipt of the quality indicators.

Multivariable logistic regressions were then used to predict receipt of each of the quality indicators adjusting for all covariates simultaneously. We also calculated Spearman rank correlation coefficients to assess the relationship between all possible pairs of covariates. Alpha was set at 0.05 for all comparisons. All analyses were conducted in SAS version 9.2 (SAS Institute Inc, Cary, North Carolina).


Patient Characteristics

The demographic and clinical characteristics of the 45,587 patients discharged from an inpatient psychiatry stay with a diagnosis of MDD between 2004 and 2008 are shown in Table 1. Patients had a mean age of 51.6 years; 89.2% were male; 72.6% were white, and 21.2% were black; and 5.5% were Hispanic. Comorbidity with other mental health conditions was common, with 46.5% having a comorbid substance use disorder, 33.7% having comorbid PTSD, and 11.7% having a comorbid anxiety disorder other than PTSD. Only 25.8% of patients had none of these other diagnoses during their hospital stay.

Quality Indicators

Among all patients sampled, 39.4% received a mental health follow-up visit within 7 days of hospital discharge and 75.8% received a mental health follow-up visit within 30 days. Adequate antidepressant coverage was provided to 58.7% of patients; 12.9% of patients received adequate psychotherapy in the 90 days postdischarge. X2 tests demonstrated a statistically significant relationship between each of the covariate measures and at least 1 of the outcomes. We retained all covariates for the multivariate models and subsequently report only those results.

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