Conference Coverage

Smartphone app helps decrease depression symptoms in pregnancy




BETHESDA, MD. – A smartphone application helped decrease depressive symptoms and improve confidence in self care for low-income pregnant women in their third trimester, a pilot study has shown.

“There is a difficulty in bringing mental health into the OB setting, particularly for underserved communities, in part because of too much to accomplish during a visit or because some women don’t think it’s the appropriate place to talk about their mental health concerns,” Liisa Hantsoo, PhD, a researcher at the Penn Center for Women’s Behavioral Wellness in Philadelphia, said during the annual National Institute of Mental Health Conference on Mental Health Services Research.

Dr. Liisa Hantsoo

Dr. Liisa Hantsoo

However, in a single academic site pilot study of 64 pregnant women, most of whom were covered under Medicaid, Dr. Hantsoo and her colleagues found that when the women were given access to their obstetrician’s office via a smartphone app integrated into the practice, they were significantly more likely to open up about their mental health concerns, spend more time in conversation with their clinician when symptoms increased, and experience fewer symptoms of depression and anxiety.

“Participants used the app frequently, they reported feeling more positive about their emotions, and they reported feeling more confident about taking care of their own health during their third trimester,” Dr. Hantsoo said.

All women in the study were assessed for depression using the Patient Health Questionnaire depression module (PHQ-9). Women with scores of 5 or higher who were no more than 32 weeks pregnant were included in the study. The women – more than half of whom had a prior history of mental illness – were also assessed using the Generalized Anxiety Disorder 7-item scale (GAD-7). And they were asked to rate their satisfaction levels with their OB care at baseline, including whether they believed their care team connected with them as individuals. The study participants were all in their mid-20s and had previously given birth.

Twenty-two women were randomly assigned to use a control app, which only allowed self-initiated communication with the practice through an established patient portal not designed specifically for mental health. Another 23 women were assigned to the same control app plus an app designed by for mental health self-care and symptom tracking. The study app included daily cognitive-behavioral therapy messages, other behavioral health educational messages, and prompts to record self-assessments of mood that were monitored daily by a care coordinator. The remaining 19 women were assigned to both apps and received additional prompts throughout the day to record their thoughts and mood, which were also monitored. If a patient’s depressive symptoms increased, the care coordinator alerted a physician in the practice, who then contacted the patient.

By week 8, the study app users had significantly decreased PHQ-9 scores (P = .001) and significantly decreased GAD-7 scores (P = .003). The combined study cohorts (women using the study app and those with the study app plus prompts to record mood) also self-reported significantly improved mood ratings at week 8 (P = .03). The combined study groups also reported more confidence in their ability to care for themselves, particularly in their third trimester, compared with women using only the control app (P = .002).

The difference is likely because of the ways that the study app was integrated into care, Dr. Hantsoo said. “Apps allow self-monitoring and identify your patterns over time, but they are also limited in that they aren’t often integrated into treatment or care, leaving a person hanging in distress if they enter their data, but then not having it seem to go anywhere. This app allowed patients to interact with their providers.”

Use of any app did not significantly affect how participants rated their overall care, although at least half of all study app users reported feeling more confident in their ability to assess and manage their moods and their overall health, particularly in their third trimester.

As for the physicians who participated in the study, they reported needing more time each week to respond to app-triggered patient needs. “It was a bit of a disruption, but they did report they thought it was worthwhile to do,” Dr. Hantsoo said in an interview.

Support for this study was provided by and by the Penn Medicine Center for Health Care Innovation. Dr. Hantsoo reported having no relevant financial

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