Despite the need for early detection of PPD, screening practices remain inconsistent. A literature review of health care provider practices showed only one in four physicians reported using screening tools; obstetrician-gynecologists were most likely (36%) to use screening tools, followed by family practitioners (31%), with pediatricians the least likely (7%).27 This low rate is at least partially the result of perceived barriers to screening among health care providers, which contributes to underdiagnosis. A survey of more than 200 physicians who were members of ACOG showed that the top three barriers restricting screening practices were time constraints, inadequate training, and a lack of knowledge of the diagnostic criteria.28
Since 2017, Dignity Health has instituted routine screening of all inpatient postpartum patients at its 29 birth centers in Arizona, California, and Nevada. In this program, of which I am a physician participant, more than 30,000 women have been screened with the EPDS. In addition to providing screening, Dignity Health staff (physicians, certified nurse midwives, nurse practitioners, registered nurses, social workers, mental health therapists, lactation consultants, health educators, and others) have received in-persontraining. In this way, the entire care team coordinates inpatient screening and referral to outpatient care providers – thus bridging the gap in postpartum mental health care. For those patients who screen positive while an inpatient, a psychiatric telemedicine appointment is provided and, if necessary, short-course medications can be prescribed until the patient has outpatient follow-up and continuity of care. While we as obstetric hospitalists and community obstetrician-gynecologists recognize that inpatient postpartum screening may be limited in its sensitivity for capturing all women who will go on to develop PPD, there is definitely a benefit to having a discussion about PPD and maternal mental health early and often throughout the postpartum period. For many women suffering in silence, a 6-week postpartum outpatient visit is too late, especially given that approximately one-third of women are lost to postpartum follow-up.29,30
A growing number of states have enacted policies to address the challenge of peripartum behavioral health needs, and several states – Illinois, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and West Virginia – now mandate routine PPD screening by health care providers.31 However, few of these laws or policies contain specific guidance, such as the optimal timing for screening, instead leaving the details to providers.32 The proper identification and management of PPD cannot be achieved by state-level policy mandates alone, but must include clinician buy-in and participation.
Obstetricians play an essential role in the identification and treatment of PPD. Among nonpsychiatric specialists, obstetrician-gynecologists are the most likely providers to see and screen during the perinatal period.33 In addition, women prefer to receive help for PPD from either their obstetric practitioners or a mental-health specialists located at the obstetric clinic, and are more likely to receive mental-health services if they are provided at the same location as that of the obstetric provider.34,35 According to ACOG’s new guidance on the fourth trimester, obstetricians are encouraged to take responsibility for women’s care immediately after birth, and this care would include contact with all mothers within the first 3 weeks post partum, at follow-up visits as needed, and for a comprehensive postpartum visit at 12 weeks.3
Our specialty has and will continue to evolve, and obstetric hospitalists will play an ever more essential role in the care of women during their inpatient obstetric admission. Whether we are a patient’s primary inpatient obstetric provider or a practice extender for single or multigroup practice, we are in a unique role to screen, begin treatment for, and offer anticipatory guidance for maternal mental health and postpartum depression disorders. Obstetric hospitalists can be a bridge between inpatient and outpatient follow-up and catalysts for implementing universal inpatient PPD screening. Our role presents an opportunity to start the discussion early and often in the fourth trimester and to make a significant difference in addressing this critical unmet need in postnatal care.