A week after I delivered my first baby, I discovered that my baby blues were morphing into something more. I had postpartum depression and anxiety–something I knew very little about, despite being a physician. Postpartum depression is common and it affects one in seven women. This statistic likely underestimates the prevalence of postpartum depression due to lack of recognition and underreporting. Most women do not see their medical provider until six weeks after their delivery, making postpartum mood disorders even more difficult to recognize and treat. Additionally, studies put rates of postpartum anxiety at 9% and postpartum OCD at 3-5%.
What I learned from my experience is that physicians working in the Emergency Department have a unique opportunity to make an impact in the lives of new parents. We often see exhausted parents bringing in their little ones to be seen as a patient. We view their complaints as mundane, but the visit can be an opportunity to screen new moms and dads for postpartum mood disorders.
“How do I do that?” you may ask? There are screening tools that can be used easily to screen for postpartum depression and anxiety including the Edinburgh Postnatal Scale and the PHQ-9. If you don’t prefer the rigidity of a survey, you can check in with families in a more informal way. Ask simple, open-ended questions like “how are you sleeping?” or “have you eaten anything healthy recently?” Ask parents who else they have to help them at home.
In many ways my son made me a better physician. I am more patient and more empathetic. The line separating physicians from patients is thin, and it is not something we should be afraid of. Our shared experiences and humanity can make our practice stronger.
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