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How tech is transforming mental health support for expectant and new mothers during COVID-19

6 August 2020 | Dr Nausheen Hameed

New tech adopted for maternity care during the COVID-19 pandemic has the potential to strengthen healthcare over the longer term argues Dr Nausheen Hameed – an East London GP and UCLPartners Health Technology Advisor.

The mental health of expectant mothers has always been a challenging space for GPs. Pregnant women and new mothers are at greater risk of deterioration in mood, subject to more domestic violence and have higher health care needs. COVID-19 has changed the way these women are able to access healthcare services. These changes could potentially have a detrimental effect on not only maternal, but neonatal outcomes.

Coupled with this, COVID-19 has exacerbated the isolation and loneliness often experienced by new mothers, as they have not had the opportunities to meet family and loved ones.

20% of new and expectant mums are affected by perinatal mental illness impacting the woman and child, and the wider family (NHS England)

As the COVID-19 pandemic swept across the country, antenatal visits normally carried out in person were moved to being conducted mostly over the phone. When appointments were in person, women had to attend alone, meaning partners were often kept out of scan appointments. These are just a couple of the challenges faced by expectant mothers over the past few months.

As a GP, although I can discuss physical ailments with women over the phone, I’ve very aware that this cannot be a substitute to a friendly supportive chat or smile. Some women may also be worried about discussing their anxieties over the phone with a stranger they have never met in person. Video consultations have helped to address some of these issues, and using Accurx – a video calling and messaging system for healthcare professionals – has been invaluable and provided a level of comfort for both patients and healthcare providers. I can see this technology being embedded into what we may call the ‘new normal’.

To specifically support women’s mental health at this time, another piece of tech has become an important part of my GP toolkit – an app called Mush. Mush is an online community bringing UK mums together for health and happiness. The company has been part of the NHS innovation Accelerator, hosted by UCLPartners.

Discovering Mush gave me the confidence to speak to mothers in the antenatal and post-natal period and signpost them to download the free tool that can help them not only engage with mothers in their local area, but also act as a support tool for commonly asked questions.

Mush was created by Katie Massie-Taylor, an entrepreneur and mother who left her city job to create the solution, which was primarily used by midwives. However, recent times have demonstrated how this can be a valuable tool for GPs. The company are now looking to incorporate the tool into the GP postnatal six-week check. As part of a maternal review we would often ask about the delivery, the mother’s mood, difficulties with breast feeding and any other issues the mother had. Since these checks have been largely virtual, signposting to apps that allow patients to engage in their own time and share experiences with other mothers has been an invaluable resource for me as a GP.

The feedback I’ve received from mothers using the app has been excellent and many have found it helped combat some of the isolation they felt throughout the COVID period.

So, what are the implications of this technology for future care? Although face-to-face appointments with pregnant women and new mothers are important, apps like Mush and video consultations are valuable tools for GPs and certainly have a place in the longer term. As we reset from the restrictions COVID has placed on care, it’s important that these tech solutions remain, and we continue to seek out new innovation that can strengthen our healthcare service.