Depressed mom sitting on couch with infant

Improving post-partum depression screening in the NICU and ED

Depressed mom sitting on couch with infant

A universal screening program is a critical first step for hospitals caring for postpartum caregivers, both inpatient and outpatient.

Perinatal Mood and Anxiety Disorders (PMADs) — particularly postpartum depression — are more prevalent among parents who have newborns admitted to a Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU). Children’s National Hospital sought to increase the number of parents screened for PMADs in the NICU and Emergency Department (ED), where there was a high incidence of people seeking care. The team found that a universal screening program is a critical first step for hospitals caring for postpartum caregivers, both inpatient and outpatient.

The big picture

Without treatment, PMADs affect the caregiver and disturb their interaction with their infant, impacting the child’s cognitive and emotional development.

“What surprised us was how many people we saw that screen positive for postpartum depression and anxiety disorders. The percentage of our population is higher than what is reported in the literature,” said Sofia Perazzo, M.D., program lead at Children’s National.

What we did

The team initiated a multifaceted approach, using an electronic version of the Edinburgh Postpartum Depression Screening tool.

  • A part-time family services support staff was hired to screen caregivers. Funding later expanded the team to cover more days and hours.
  • Real-time social work interventions and linkage to resources were provided to all caregivers.
  • A part-time psychologist was hired to provide telemedicine therapy to NICU parents.
  • Remote screening was implemented for those who could not be screened in-person.

In the NICU, 1,596 parents were approached from August 2018-April 2022. Of those approached, 90% completed the screen, 26% screened positive, 4% indicated having suicidal thoughts and about 13% of caregivers were fathers.

What we learned

  • Action plans need to be in place for positive screens at start.
  • Electronic tools can aid significantly in expanding screening.
  • Trained personnel and multidisciplinary approaches are key.
  • Screening in two different settings can be challenging as they present different systems.
  • Being flexible and adapting tools and the system are key to success.
  • Good team communication with the nurse is vital.

“We’re working on improving our screening system to make it more efficient. We also realized that we need to make more resources available to these families,” said Dr. Perazzo. “Our team is constantly looking for community resources that can help them along the way. There is also a big need to educate our families on mental health issues, so we use this encounter as an opportunity to do that as well.”

This work was made possible by an investment from A. James & Alice B. Clark Foundation to Children’s National that aims to provide families with greater access to mental health care and community resources. Read more about the work of the Perinatal Mental Health Task Force at Children’s National.