Computer test helps diagnose anxiety and depression in patients heading to surgery

The computerized adaptive mental health assessment tool provides a simple tool to assess mental health to provide better support during recovery

A US Department of Health and Human Services report from 2018 found that more than 19% of people suffer from mental illness, yet only 43% of them have received any kind of mental health services. Serious mental health conditions like depression and anxiety are also common in patients undergoing surgery, but these are likely underdiagnosed as well because traditional methods for mental health screening—like detailed questionnaires or interviews—are time-consuming and cumbersome.

In a recent study, Peter Nagele, MD, Professor and Chair of the Department of Anesthesia and Critical Care at UChicago, worked with Robert Gibbons, PhD, Blum-Reise Professor of Medicine and Public Health Sciences, and David Beiser, MD, Associate Professor of Medicine, to use a computerized adaptive mental health assessment tool (CAT-MH) to screen patients going into surgery for anxiety and depression. The research was led by Victoria Bass, MD, a former research fellow at UChicago who is now at Massachusetts General Hospital. Bass won the American Society of Anesthesiologists 2021 Resident Research Contest Award for the project.

Gibbons developed the software tool to provide rapid, precise, and accurate assessment of numerous mental health disorders, including anxiety and depression, without the need for a trained interviewer. The tool adapts to the patient’s responses, personally tailoring follow up questions according to previous answers, and can often diagnose them in a few questions instead of churning through a static bank of dozens of items. It has been piloted in primary care clinics and municipal court systems and has been used to assess suicide risk as well. The new study, published in the journal Anesthesia & Analgesia, showed that it is just as useful for assessing anxiety and depression in surgical patients as well.

“Unlike routine tests like checking vital signs or lab tests, traditional mental health screening requires lengthy questionnaires that are difficult to work into the usual preparations for a surgery,” Nagele said. “This tool gives us a quick, simple method to evaluate a patient’s mental health, and provide them the support they may need during a stressful time in their lives and give them a better chance for a full recovery.”

Explore the Biological Sciences Division