Extend postnatal health checks to protect new mothers, says RCGP

Postnatal health checks must be made longer 'as standard' to help improve the mental health of new mothers, the RCGP has said, warning that extra resources are needed urgently to make this happen.

GP consultation (Photo: JH Lancy)
GP consultation (Photo: JH Lancy)

The call follows the launch of a report from charity the National Childbirth Trust (NCT) which found two in five new mothers with mental health problems go undiagnosed.

Compiled from responses from over 1,000 women, it also found that up to half of mothers experience mental health problems at some time during pregnancy or within the first year after their child’s birth.

Over a fifth (22%) of women said they were not asked about their emotional wellbeing during the health check given to mothers six weeks following birth, while nearly 20% did not feel able to disclose it during the check.

Among the latter, a quarter said they felt they did not have time to disclose the problem in standard appointments and almost half were worried that health professionals would think they could not look after their baby.

Postnatal depression

The results have inspired its ‘hidden half’ campaign, which aims to help stop thousands of women suffering with postnatal depression and other mental health conditions alone.

The NCT recommended that more funding should be made available for the six-week check, a call backed by the RCGP.

RCGP chair Professor Helen Stokes-Lampard said: ‘It’s incredibly hard for GPs to explore all the physical and psychological factors affecting our patients’ health within the time constraints of the consultation as it stands.

‘We need these checks to be much longer as standard, so that we are able to give the same attention to the new mother as we do to the baby – but this needs more resources for our service, and more GPs.

‘Unfortunately, offering longer appointments means offering fewer appointments, and our patients are already waiting longer than they should be for routine appointments. We need the pledges made in NHS England’s GP Forward View, including £2.4bn extra a year for general practice, and 5,000 more GPs by 2020, to be implemented as a matter of urgency in order to address this.

GP workforce

‘What isn’t helpful is using indiscriminate surveys as a stick with which to beat hard working GPs – particularly as people are more likely to report a negative experience than a positive one – when we are doing our very best for patients under such intense resource and workforce pressures.

‘It’s actually very encouraging that nearly 80% of new mothers were asked about their emotional wellbeing at the six-week check – but perinatal mental health conditions are incredibly complex, and in many cases we have no choice but to rely on women to disclose their problems.’

Sarah McMullen, head of knowledge at NCT, said: ‘Some mothers aren’t being open about how they’re feeling as they’re terrified they’re going to have their baby taken away and others are not being asked about their emotional wellbeing at all. A third of women said their six-week check was rushed and for some, it lasted only three minutes.

‘GPs are under incredible pressure so it’s no wonder that this crucial opportunity to uncover any mental health problems is being missed.’

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