Massachusetts General introduces novel postpartum depression screen with free app

By Dave Muoio
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A new iPhone app launched for free by Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) looks not only to bring convenient postpartum depression (PPD) screening to more expecting and postpartum women, but also looks to redefine the gold standard for post-partum depression diagnosis.

Developed by researchers from MGH’s Ammon-Pinizzotto Center for Women’s Mental Health, the MGH Perinatal Depression Scale (MGHPDS) is intended for pregnant women aged 18 to 45 years who are pregnant, or up to 12 weeks postpartum. The app is available now on the App Store with an Android version is planned for later this season.

“We’ve been interested in doing PPD screening for a long time, and there’s really a mandate across the country to enhance PPD screening,” Dr. Lee S. Cohen, director of the mental health center and professor at Harvard Medical School, told MobiHealthNews. “We’re really excited not just about what we released, but about the implications in terms of enhancing access to treatment.”

MGHPDS blends elements of the long-standing Edinburgh Postpartum Depression Scale (EPDS) alongside questionnaires about specific PPD-related symptoms such as anxiety, sleep, and stress. The goal, Cohen explained, is to use data collected from early users to simplify PPD screening and improve its admittedly high rate of false positives.

“We realized that we had the opportunity to see if we could improve on the most commonly used screen for post-partum depression,” Cohen said. “[This is] version one of the MGHPDS, and our hope is that we will have both a shorter instrument and a more specific instrument, because the current EPDS only has about a 75 percent predictive validity … and if you’re doing large-scale screening that’s a lot of effort to comb through.”

Cohen said that the researchers have been developing the new screen and app for approximately 18 months, and in that time have focused on making the experience as user friendly as possible. Along with making potential diagnoses, the app also offers PPD education, and will attempt to connect positive cases to appropriate care. Further, its availability on mobile platforms not only makes administering a screen more convenient, but also cuts out any potential errors that might occur when screens are administered with a pen and paper.

“Using a digital platform makes it extremely easy for patients [compared to the EPDS], and they get it automatically scored for them and there’s a guide for what the score actually means — and just the fact that you have that on your smartphone is a substantial improvement,” Cohen said.

Improving the accuracy and convenience of the screening tool may be the team’s first goal as they work for a 2.0 release next year, but it isn’t the only way MGHPDS can help perinatal women. With evidence for some digital health PPD therapies growing, Cohen said that it’s within the MGH team’s reach to include direct interventions alongside the screen and other resources  — perhaps even within the next 18 to 24 months.

“Our vision for this instrument is that it will not just be a screening instrument,” he said. “I’m confident that in a subsequent version of this app we’ll have a digital treatment tool coupled with it, so that if a women screens positively there won’t only be a link to referral sources, but a digital treatment tool that could be used along with it.”

The best known PPD apps are largely focused on tracking and support. Fertility tracking app Glow introduced postpartum support and perinatal assistance in 2014, while Iodine's drug review app Start partnered with a postpartum nonprofit in 2015 to allow symptom tracking and depression medication reminders.