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mHealth App Looks to Identify, Help Treat Postpartum Depression

Researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital have launched an app designed to identify postpartum depression in new parents by connecting with them at home.

Source: ThinkStock

By Eric Wicklund

- Massachusetts General Hospital researchers have developed an mHealth app to help diagnose postpartum depression in new mothers – and give researchers more information on how to identify and treat the behavioral health condition.

The MGH Perinatal Depression Scale (MGHPDS), a free iPhone app developed at Mass General’s Ammon-Pinizzotto Center for Women's Mental Health, prompts users to answer questions about mood, sleep, anxiety and stress during and up to 12 weeks after pregnancy.

The digital health tool is designed to help diagnose and treat a serious mood disorder – much different than the so-called “baby blues“ – that affects some 15 percent of new parents and can lead to adverse behavioral and physical health concerns, even harm to the infant.

There is no known cause for PPD, though researchers have identified hormonal changes, genetics and major life changes as frequent contributors.  

With mobile health technology, researchers now hope to gain a better understanding of what a parent goes through after the birth of a chuild.

"The rapid growth of mHealth in psychiatry has led to the development of a variety of web-driven screening tools for many mental health issues, yet to date there has been little attention to the use of technology to better diagnose and treat PPD," Lee S. Cohen, MD, director of the Ammon-Pinizzotto Center and professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, said in a press release. "Further complicating matters is the wide prevalence of false positives, which occur approximately 25 percent of the time when using currently available scales."

The MGHPDS app combines the most common PPD evaluator, the Edinburgh Postpartum Depression Scale, a 10-question self-rating scale which is the most common tool for identifying women at risk for PPD, with other tools to measure symptoms associated with perinatal psychiatric illness, such as sleep disturbance, anxiety and perceived stress.

Cohen also hopes to use the app – an Android version will be released this fall – to refine how PPD is identified.

"Those who download the app and complete the included questionnaires may also consent to share their scores with researchers within our center here at MGH, further assisting in the development of an even shorter scale with greater specificity than what is currently available," he said. "It is our hope that - as screening for PPD becomes increasingly common across the US and globally - easy-to-use tools like the MGHPDS, which can be readily used on smartphones and other digital devices, will lead to more accurate screening of perinatal mood and anxiety disorders and to improved clinical outcomes for patients."

They’re not the only ones looking to unlock secrets around PPD with mHealth tools.

Last year, researchers at the University of North Carolina, working with the international Postpartum Depression: Action Towards Causes and Treatment (PACT) Consortium, the National Institutes of Mental Health and Sage Bionetworks, among others, launched PPD Act, an app and research study on Apple’s ResearchKit platform. The study’s goal is to reach 100,000 participants around the globe who are dealing with PPD or its more serious form, postpartum psychosis (PPP).

Following completion of the first phase, focused on gathering participants, researchers will use an mHealth module developed by the genetics research company 23andMe to collect DNA information from selected members.  

“This app and its self-administered testing model will provide us with access to a large amount of data among women across the globe while stretching our research dollars,” Patrick Sullivan, MD, director of the UNC Center for Psychiatric Genomics and one of the project’s organizers, said in a 2016 new story provided by UNC Health Care. “This will help us to validate and cross-check results, allowing us to draw more precise conclusions.”  

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