New tool could aid in suicide prevention

In a study, risk-assessment tool performs like a psychiatrist

Climbing suicide rates over the past 10 years prompted The Joint Commission – which accredits and certifies nearly 21,000 health care organizations and programs in the U.S. – to issue an alert urging health care organizations to step up screening and detection of those individuals most at risk. But a shortage of both time and psychiatry staff makes compliance with this directive a challenge.

A tablet-based suicide risk-assessment tool developed by researchers at the University of Vermont may provide clinicians in the hospital with a solution.

We’ve demonstrated for the first time that a simple, quick model can accurately predict a psychiatrist’s assessment of near-term risk for suicide.

Isabelle Desjardins, MD, psychiatrist and medical director of Inpatient Psychiatry

“The problem of suicide in the U.S. has ramped up and is becoming a significant public health issue, and in some sectors – like the military – it’s reaching epidemic proportions,” says lead study author Isabelle Desjardins, MD, a psychiatrist and medical director of Inpatient Psychiatry at The University of Vermont Medical Center.

Between 2012 and 2014, Desjardins, an associate professor, and her Larner College of Medicine colleagues conducted a study to evaluate the performance of a suicide risk-assessment tool they had co-developed in the emergency department setting.

With the help of four highly respected suicide prevention specialists, they created an electronic algorithm designed to simulate the thinking of an experienced psychiatrist in the evaluation of imminent suicide risk. The algorithm allows non-psychiatric clinicians to assess a high volume of patients efficiently, and gives them short-term guidance in addressing patients’ needs.

The tool performed at a remarkably high level in the study. For levels of suicide risk, the model predicted the psychiatrists’ assessment at a rate between 91 percent and 94 percent, but did so in a fraction of the time (less than a minute). Patients reported that the tool was easy to complete.

“We’ve demonstrated for the first time that a simple, quick model can accurately predict a psychiatrist’s assessment of near-term risk for suicide,” says Desjardins. “To have a tool to standardize risk assessment efficiently is the first step towards meeting the Joint Commission mandate. Perhaps most important, this tool can be most helpful in identifying individuals at risk by augmenting clinical decision support in settings with scarce psychiatry resources.”