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Canadian Task Force recommendation on screening for postpartum depression misses the mark

Canadian Task Force recommendation on screening for postpartum depression misses the mark

Dr. Lee S. Cohen, Director of the Ammon-Pinizzotto Center for Women’s Mental Health at Massachusetts General Hospital, recently shared his insights on the new recommendation by the Canadian Task Force on Preventative Health Care which advises against systematic questionnaires for PPD screening with Ob.Gyn News on January 20, 2023.

Postpartum/perinatal depression (PPD) remains the most common complication in modern obstetrics, with a prevalence of 10%-15% based on multiple studies over the last 2 decades. Over those same 2 decades, there has been growing interest and motivation across the country – from small community hospitals to major academic centers – to promote screening. Such screening is integrated into obstetrical practices, typically using the Edinburgh Postnatal Depression Scale (EPDS), the most widely used validated screen for PPD globally.

As mentioned in previous columns, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommended screening for PPD in 2016, which includes screening women at highest risk, and both acutely treating and preventing PPD.

Since then, screening women for a common clinical problem like PPD has been widely adopted by clinicians representing a broad spectrum of interdisciplinary care. Providers who are engaged in the treatment of postpartum women – obstetricians, psychiatrists, doulas, lactation consultants, facilitators of postpartum support groups, and advocacy groups among others – are included.

An open question and one of great concern recently to our group and others has been what happens after screening. It is clear that identification of PPD per se is not necessarily a challenge, and we have multiple effective treatments from antidepressants to mindfulness-based cognitive therapy to cognitive-behavioral interventions. There is also a growing number of digital applications aimed at mitigation of depressive symptoms in women with postpartum major depressive disorder. One unanswered question is how to engage women after identification of PPD and how to facilitate access to care in a way that maximizes the likelihood that women who actually are suffering from PPD get adequate treatment.

The “perinatal treatment cascade” refers to the majority of women who, on the other side of identification of PPD, fail to receive adequate treatment and continue to have persistent depression. This is perhaps the greatest challenge to the field and to clinicians – how do we, on the other side of screening, see that these women get access to care and get well?

With that backdrop, it is surprising that the Canadian Task Force on Preventive Health Care has recently recommended against screening with systematic questionnaires, noting that benefits were unclear and not a particular advantage relative to standard practice. The recommendation carries an assumption that standard practice involves queries about mental health. While the task force continues to recommend screening for PPD, their recommendation against screening with a standardized questionnaire represents a bold, sweeping, if not myopic view.

While the Canadian Task Force on Preventive Health Care made their recommendation based on a single randomized controlled trial with the assumption that women were getting mental health counseling, and that women liked getting mental health engagement around their depression, that is not a uniform part of practice. Thus, it is puzzling why the task force would make the recommendation based on such sparse data.

The way to optimize access to care and referral systems for women who are suffering from PPD is not to remove a part of the system that’s already working. Well-validated questionnaires such as the EPDS are easy to administer and are routinely integrated into the electronic health systems records of both small and large centers. These questionnaires are an inexpensive way to increase the likelihood that women get identified and referred for a spectrum of potentially helpful interventions.

PPD is also easy to treat with medications and a wide spectrum of nonpharmacologic interventions. Novel interventions are also being explored to maximize access for women with postpartum mood and anxiety disorders such as peer-delivered behavioral activation and cognitive-behavioral therapy, which could be community based and implemented from urban to rural settings across the United States.

What may need the greatest study is the path to accessing effective treatments and resources for these women and this problem has prompted our group to explore these issues in our more recent investigations. Better understanding of those factors that limit access to mental health providers with expertise in perinatal mental health to the logistical issues of navigating the health care system for sleep-deprived new moms and their families demands greater attention and clearer answers.

The whole field has an obligation to postpartum women to figure out the amalgam of practitioners, resources, and platforms that need to be used to engage women so that they get effective treatment – because we have effective treatments. But the solution to improving perinatal mental health outcomes, unlike the approach of our colleagues in Canada, is not to be found in abandoning questionnaire-based screening, but in identifying the best ways to prevent PPD and to maximize access to care.

Dr. Cohen is the director of the Ammon-Pinizzotto Center for Women’s Mental Health at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, which provides information resources and conducts clinical care and research in reproductive mental health. He has been a consultant to manufacturers of psychiatric medications. Email him at [email protected].

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