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Detecting depression with a computer tablet

The day might come when you show up at your doctor’s office for an appointment, hand over your ID card — and you’re handed back an iPad tablet or similar electronic device. You’ll be asked to answer questions on the screen.

Researchers at King’s College London teaching hospital in the U.K. used these devices in their study into whether patients with physical illnesses also had depression. They determined that as many as 30 percent of those with long-term conditions had some type of mental-health concerns as well.

The electronic gadgets were a frontline means of screening. The results were instantaneous, and it meant better recognition of patient concerns, as well as actions being taken to address those concerns once the patient got in to see the doctor.

In the study, the sets of questions on the device could be geared to the patient’s medical condition, such as heart disease or chronic pain, and covered areas such as adherence to treatment plans, alcohol use and quality of life, as well as depression.

The results varied, depending on the illness, but the questions gave doctors information that might not come out in a short office visit. The information could be compared from one visit to the next.

The Patient Health Questionnaire (PHQ-9) also was used in an Australian study, but with a different slant: This research focused on whether doctors in different countries were good at spotting depression. Italy and the Netherlands had good scores; the U.S. and Australia did not.

So if you’re handed an electronic device and asked to put in your answers, do it. It might reveal some information that your doctor isn’t likely to spot on his own.

By Matilda Charles