Study Finds Telehealth Improved Access to Perinatal Mental Healthcare During Pandemic

A new study has found that the use of telehealth for mental health services for infants and mothers in the course of the pandemic improved access to care. Perinatal anxiety and mood disorders occur after or during pregnancy. These disorders are associated with problems with an infant’s emotional and social development as well as poorer birth outcomes. Mothers with high psychosocial stress and low social support have a higher chance of developing perinatal disorders.

The coronavirus pandemic disrupted social interactions and increased social isolation, which raised some concerns for the mental health of pregnant mothers. Limited in-person interactions became the norm, even for hospitals, which led most to transition their services to virtual models to continue offering care. For instance, the Health Expectations Perinatal Mental Health Program provided mothers with group therapy, infant developmental therapy, an infant-mother dyadic group, postpartum peer support groups for mothers and parent-child early relational evaluations.

For their study, the researchers examined health outcomes of those who had received telehealth therapy between March and December 2020 under the program, comparing them to patient outcomes of those who took part in in-person therapy between March and December 2019.

The researchers found that before the pandemic, this particular perinatal mental health program saw or treated 146 patients. During the pandemic, this number rose to 157. The researchers also discovered that in 2020 18 infant-mother pairs took part in the program, with 15 of them finishing it. This was a higher rate of completion in comparison to 2019 when only 16 out of 25 enrolled pairs finished the program.

The program utilized the EPDS scale to track outcomes of patients after, before and during the program, which led researchers to discover that the average EPDS score for both groups was 0, which indicates that in-person therapy and telehealth therapy were both effective. In their report, the researchers noted that virtual visits could improve access to convenient care for some patients, in particular those in their third trimester when physical discomfort made travelling harder. In addition to this, the researchers found that racial disparities in access to care weren’t decreased with the shift to telehealth.

The group explained that a majority of the program’s participants prior to the pandemic were Caucasian and not Latina or Hispanic, noting that the number of Latina or Hispanic patients reduced during the pandemic while that of the majority grew. In their report, the researchers highlight the need for targeted outreach to underserved communities and minorities to help address inequities and disparities.

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