One in four new mothers who are physicians report experiencing postpartum depression, a rate twice that of the general population, according to new survey findings presented at the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) 2022 Annual Meeting.
The survey results weren’t all grim. More than three fourths (78%) of new mothers reported meeting their own breastfeeding goals. Still, Alison Stuebe, MD, director of maternal-fetal medicine, University of North Carolina School of Medicine, Chapel Hill, said the high postpartum depression rates among physicians might be associated with worse patient care.
“Physicians who have had postpartum depression and provide clinical care for children and birthing people can bring their negative experiences to their clinical work, potentially impacting how they counsel and support their patients,” Stuebe, who was not involved in the study, told Medscape Medical News.
For the study, Emily Eischen, a fourth-year medical student at the University of South Florida Morsani College of Medicine, Tampa, and her colleagues sought to learn how physicians and physician trainee mothers fared in the face of the unique stressors of their jobs, Including “strenuous work hours and pressures to get back to work and limited maternity leave.”
The researchers recruited 637 physicians and medical students with a singleton pregnancy to respond to a survey adapted largely from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Infant Feeding Practices Study and the CDC’s Pregnancy Assessment Monitoring System.
Most of the respondents, who were enrolled through social media physician groups and email list-serves, were married non-Hispanic White persons; 71% were practicing or training in pediatrics, family medicine, or obstetrics/gynecology, and 2% were medical students.
Data showed that 25% of participants reported postpartum depression. The highest rates were seen among Hispanic/Latino respondents (31%), Black persons (30%), and non-Hispanic White persons (25%). The lowest rates of postpartum depression were for respondents identifying as Asian (15%).
Guilt a Driver
Most respondents (80%) with symptoms of postpartum depression attributed their condition to sleep deprivation. Other frequently cited reasons were problems related to infant feeding (44%), lack of adequate maternity leave (41%), and lack of support at work (33%).
“Feeling guilty for not fulfilling work responsibilities, especially for residents, who are in the most difficult time in their careers and have to hand the workload off to others, can be very stressful,” Eischen said.
Despite the high rates of postpartum depression in the survey, the investigators found that 99% of respondents had initiated breastfeeding, 72% were exclusively breastfeeding, and 78% said they were meeting their personal breastfeeding goals. All of those rates are higher than what is seen in the general population.
Rates of self-reported postpartum depression were higher among those who did not meet their breastfeeding goals than among those who did (36% vs 23%; P = .003), the researchers found.
Adetola Louis-Jacques, MD, an assistant professor of medicine, USF Health Obstetrics and Gynecology, and the senior author of the study, said the high breastfeeding rates can be attributed partly to an increased appreciation among physicians that lactation and breastfeeding have proven benefits for women and infant health.
“We still have work to do, but at least the journey has started in supporting birthing and lactating physicians,” she said.
However, Stuebe wondered whether the survey captured a group of respondents more likely to meet breastfeeding goals. She said she was surprised by the high proportion of respondents who did so.
“When surveys are distributed via social media, we don’t have a clear sense of who chooses to participate and who opts out,” she told Medscape Medical News. “If the survey was shared through social media groups that focus on supporting breastfeeding among physicians, it could have affected the results.”
No relevant financial relationships have been reported.
American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) 2022 Annual Meeting: Abstract A280. Presented May 7, 2022.
David Wild is a medical writer in Toronto.
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