The following post was first published in OB/GYN News. Please see our OB/GYN News archives here.

It was almost a year ago that the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists came out unequivocally in favor of universal screening for perinatal depression.

In the revised policy statement from ACOG’s Committee on Obstetric Practice, the college recommended that physicians screen women for depression and anxiety symptoms at least once during the perinatal period using a standard, validated tool. ACOG also noted that screening must be coupled with appropriate follow-up and that clinical staff must be prepared to start therapy or refer patients to treatment (Obstet. Gynecol. 2015;125:1268-71).

This move toward routine screening was intuitive given the prevalence of perinatal mood and anxiety disorders.

Fast forward to January 2016 and the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force final recommendation calling for screening all adults for depression, including the at-risk populations of pregnant and postpartum women. Much like the ACOG guidelines, the USPSTF recommendations call for adequate systems to ensure treatment and follow-up (JAMA. 2016 Jan. 26;315[4]:380-7).

These recommendations, although timely, derive from relatively sparse data on the actual effectiveness of perinatal screening. Although the move toward screening is welcome and simply commonsense, it is concerning that there has been very little systematic study of the effectiveness of screening for such a prevalent and impactful illness. At the end of the day, the question remains: Will screening for perinatal depression in obstetric and possibly pediatric settings lead to improved outcomes for patients and families?


As more U.S. states, along with other countries around the world, have begun routine screening of women in the perinatal period, it’s become clear that screening itself is easy to do. What has yet to be adequately demonstrated is how screening moves us toward getting women into treatment and ultimately toward getting women well.

New Jersey and Illinois are good examples of states that should be applauded for recognizing early on how important it is to identify women with perinatal depression. But even in these early-adopter states, the actual implementation of referral systems has been lacking.

Here in Massachusetts, we have a state-funded program designed to teach local women’s health providers – including ob.gyns. – about diagnosing perinatal depression. The MCPAP (Massachusetts Child Psychiatry Access Project) for Moms program also offers resources for consultation and referral. The program is fairly new, so it’s still unclear whether ob.gyns. and primary care physicians will accept the role of de facto mental health treaters, as well as whether the women who are identified through screening will go on to recover acutely and, more importantly, over the long term.

These experiences among the states highlight how great a challenge it is to go from screening to positive health outcomes for women.


A lack of evidence isn’t the only problem. A recent editorial in the Lancet raised the concern that the currently available screening tests are not suitable for clinical practice. The suggestion read to some like heresy.

The Edinburgh Postnatal Depression Scale, which is the most commonly used screening instrument, has a positive predictive value of detecting major depressive disorder of 47%-64%, according to the editorial, making it prone to delivering false positives (doi: 10.1016/S0140-6736[16]00265-8).

“This situation is potentially dangerous,” the Lancet editorial noted, since results of qualitative studies “suggest that women are extremely concerned about depression screening, about the stigma associated with a diagnosis of depression, and that a positive result might lead to an automatic social service referral, and potentially removal of their baby.”

A recent article, published in the New York Times, raises an additional concern about what a depression diagnosis could mean for insurability. The article highlights the experience of a woman whose diagnosis of postpartum depression is creating difficulties for her in getting life insurance. The point is underscored that it is perfectly legal for life and disability insurers to charge more to patients with a diagnosis of mental illness or to deny coverage outright.


The whole issue of perinatal depression screening has opened a Pandora’s box, and that is a good thing. The conversation is long overdue in America. It is time for greater national awareness and focus on a disease that is as prevalent as perinatal depression and as disabling for women and their families.

The focus up to this point has been on perinatal depression screening, but we’re about to see a shift toward building the community infrastructure that will be critical for managing patients, including those women who have previously been marginalized and have had very poor access to care.

Widespread screening and treatment will also require a level of cooperation between advocacy groups and providers who are multidisciplinary in their approach, taking advantage of both pharmacologic and nonpharmacologic approaches. A model of crossdisciplinary collaboration will include, for example, providers from psychiatrists to therapists to doulas to social workers to clinicians who focus on mother-infant interaction. It is a long list and models for such collaboration are somewhat lacking.

One good example of a pilot effort for such a collaboration is the Massachusetts Postpartum Depression Commission, which includes a full spectrum of participants from doulas, social workers, and perinatal psychiatrists to lay people. The partnerships and the networking that’s going on across disciplines is absolutely new and is going to be essential if we’re going to manage an issue as large as the treatment of perinatal depression.

The enhanced awareness of the need to screen for, identify, and treat postpartum depression will also lead to better tools with greater specificity, perhaps using new technologies for better identification and treatment, everything from telemedicine to smartphone applications.

There will certainly be growing pains as we gather evidence, refine our screening instruments, and build referral systems, but I don’t see this as a reason not to identify illness in this vulnerable population. Rather, it is a charge to the field that there is work to be done.

Dr. Cohen is the director of the 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.

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