The country's leading physicians group is calling for more routine depression and anxiety screenings in new and expectant moms and for state and federal reviews of the causes of maternal death.
The American Medical Association's governing body voted Tuesday to adopt a resolution to implement screening during prenatal, postnatal, pediatric or emergency room visits.
The policy also calls for new training materials to help providers identify signs of depression in mothers and provide more treatment options. The AMA will also advocate for state and federal panels to investigate deaths during pregnancy or within the first year after childbirth.
"As attention is turned toward the newborn, the health and well-being of the mother can, unfortunately, take a back seat, even as preventable physical and mental issues pose dangers," said Dr. Albert Osbahr III, medical director of occupational health services at Spartanburg (S.C.) Regional Healthcare System and a member of the AMA's board of trustees in a written statement. "We need to recognize the dangers of postpartum depression and recognize that pregnancy-related deaths have been increasing."
While rates of infant mortality have declined, the U.S. leads wealthy nations in the number of women who die from childbirth. An estimated 700 to 900 women die from pregnancy or childbirth-related causes each year in the U.S., while 65,000 experience serious health complications.
Additionally, more than one-third of mothers caring for toddlers experience depression, according to figures from the advocacy group Mental Health America, with 1 in 7 experiencing depression or anxiety either during pregnancy or in the first year of the child's life.
A provision included in last year's 21st Century Cures Act set aside $20 million over four years in state grants for screening and treatment services. Despite the increased focus by lawmakers to address the issue, maternal depression is undertreated and undiagnosed.
Out of the more than 600,000 women each year in the U.S. who experience postpartum depression, only 15% seek professional help, according to the American Psychiatric Association.
Some studies suggest healthcare providers aren't addressing the issue of maternal mental health with enough frequency. Only last year did depression screening for all pregnant and postpartum women become part of the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force's screening guidelines for all adults.
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends pediatricians identify women with maternal depression, but a study published last year in the Journal of Behavioral and Developmental Pediatrics found only 44% of pediatricians in 2013 regularly conducted such screenings.
With its resolution, the AMA hopes to change that behavior within its 234,000 members.