ATLANTA (FRONTLINE MEDICAL NEWS)Don’t – repeat, don’t – use risk assessment tools and scales in an effort to predict future suicide in patients who’ve committed intentional self-harm, Dr. Keith Hawton urged at the annual conference of the American Association of Suicidology.

He noted this isn’t simply a matter of his personal opinion; it’s also a strongly worded recommendation in the current U.K. NICE (National Institute for Health and Care Excellence) guidelines on the long-term management of patients who’ve committed self-harm. The various NICE guidelines, which address numerous areas of medical practice and are used to determine what’s reimbursable through the U.K.’s National Health Service, are famously evidence based and concerned with cost-effectiveness.

The NICE guidelines on management of self-harm further advise: “Do not use risk assessment tools and scales to determine who should and should not be offered treatment or who should be discharged from hospital.”

“Those are some fairly contentious statements about risk assessment scales. But those statements are based upon review of the evidence about the effectiveness of risk assessment scales,” according to Dr. Hawton, professor of psychiatry and director of the Centre for Suicide Research at the University of Oxford (England).

“In our country, hospitals have become obsessed with risk assessment. And usually it seems to be about protecting the organization rather than the patient, because so often the results aren’t linked to risk management, which is what we should be talking about,” he observed.

Dr. Hawton and his colleagues provided some of the evidence that led to the NICE guideline committee’s thumbs-down on the use of suicide risk assessment scales in patients who’ve engaged in intentional self-harm. In a study provocatively titled “The sad truth about the SADPERSONS scale,” he and his coinvestigators essentially dismantled SADPERSONS, a widely used screening tool for suicide risk, concluding that it is without value.

The acronym stands for Sex (male), Age (<19 or >45), Depression, Previous attempts, Ethanol abuse, Rational thinking loss, Social supports lacking, Organized plan, No spouse, and Sickness. One point is given for each. Patients who score 7-10 are to be hospitalized, and those with a total of 5 or 6 points should be strongly considered for hospitalization.

Dr. Hawton and coinvestigators tracked 126 consecutive patients who were evaluated for self-harm using the SADPERSONS scale in a general hospital emergency department and then followed them for 6 months. SADPERSONS performed miserably in predicting clinical management outcomes, such as admission to a psychiatric hospital or repetition of self-harm within 6 months. Indeed, the test failed to identify 4 of the 5 patients admitted to a psychiatric hospital, 65 of 70 who were referred from the ED to community psychiatric aftercare, and 28 of 31 who repeated self-harm within 6 months. Thus, its sensitivity as a predictor of repetition of self-harm was a lowly 6.6% (Emerg. Med. J. 2014;31:796-8).

And yet, a 32-hospital U.K. national study conducted by Dr. Hawton and others found that SADPERSONS was the most widely used scale in EDs for risk assessment following self-harm (BMJ Open. 2014 May 2;4:e004732 [ doi:10.1136/bmjopen-2013-004732 ]).

“It’s a very crude tool,” Dr. Hawton said. “How it found its way into common use in clinical practice is beyond me.”