Letters from Maine

Our role in preventing postpartum depression


Tragic, embarrassing, criminal ... Choose your own adjective. The maternal mortality rate in this country is the worst of any developed nation in the world. And the numbers are getting worse with an increase of 14% over the previous year. One-third of these deaths occur weeks or months after the delivery.

In a recent issue of Harvard Public Health, researchers at the T.H. Chan School of Public Health discuss some of the possible remedies for what they describe as a crisis. While some of the solutions they list will require major restructuring of how we deliver health care to mothers, others could take advantage of our current systems by employing a slight shift in emphasis. And here is where those of us on the frontline of care delivery can make a difference.

The researchers point out that “More than 90% of maternal deaths could be prevented if women had access to quality care.” They also observe that most mothers have a single postpartum check with the ob.gyn. facility that delivered the baby and then are often left to navigate the health system because transfer to their primary care and/or mental health professional is haphazard or lacking in follow-up.

Dr. William G. Wilkoff practiced primary care pediatrics in Brunswick, Maine, for nearly 40 years.

Dr. William G. Wilkoff

As I read through the article it struck me that as pediatricians we could and should be playing a larger role in this critical postpartum period when so many women seem to be falling through the cracks in our health care nonsystem. This is not a great “Ah-ha” moment for which I deserve any credit. In 2010 the American Academy of Pediatrics recommended that mothers be screened for depression at the 1-, 2-, and 4-month visits using either a validated 10-question screening instrument or a more direct 2-question tool (Pediatrics 2010;126[5]:1032-9). However, a periodic survey of AAP members 3 years later revealed that less than a third of the respondents were screening regularly for postpartum depression. In 2019 the academy reemphasized the important role that pediatric primary care givers can play in the detection and early management of the condition.

The reasons for the disappointing response include the list of usual suspects of inadequate training, workload demands, reimbursement, liability concerns, and the difficulty in finding and establishing effective referral networks. Unfortunately, these factors continue to exist, and many cases have multiplied in the wake of the pandemic.

In some states, educational outreach, funding, and changes in the reimbursement structure have resulted in improved outcomes. Not all of us are fortunate enough to live in a state that has made postpartum depression detection and management a priority. However, simply making it our own professional priority can save lives, ease suffering, and improve postpartum outcomes. Here I am talking about first caring and then inquiring about a mother’s mental health. Asking how much sleep she is getting. And then spending the time to give personalized advice on feeding and sleep schedules. Even, if this means ignoring half of the topics on the recommended health maintenance. It doesn’t take but a few minutes to convince yourself that the baby is healthy, and you know that 90% of them are.

However, a new mother who is sleep deprived and already has one foot on the spiral staircase down into postpartum depression represents an emergency. And, you should have the skills to turn it around. But, you have to care about the problem and make it your own priority – high enough on the list to make a follow-up appointment or call in a week instead of waiting a month or 2 until the next visit.

Unfortunately, even with your best efforts there are some families who need services beyond the scope of your practice. Making the necessary referrals can be frustrating and time consuming but not dropping ball until it lands in the appropriate place may save a life.

Dr. Wilkoff practiced primary care pediatrics in Brunswick, Maine, for nearly 40 years. He has authored several books on behavioral pediatrics, including “How to Say No to Your Toddler.” Other than a Littman stethoscope he accepted as a first-year medical student in 1966, Dr. Wilkoff reports having nothing to disclose. Email him at pdnews@mdedge.com.

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