GPs failing to ask first-time mothers about mental and physical health issues

First-time mothers are suffering through a litany of undiagnosed, under-reported and untreated health issues in every aspect of their lives, a major research project has revealed.

The study found high and very high levels of hidden problems in women's mental, physical and sexual health but extremely low levels of inquiries by medics who were treating them.

The research by Trinity College Dublin's school of nursing and midwifery for the Maternal Health and Maternal Morbidity in Ireland (Mammi) study showed that three months after giving birth 28% of mothers experienced some anxiety and 18% experienced depression.

But the study showed half of GPs did not ask the woman directly about the problem or condition.

Dr Deirdre Daly, assistant professor in midwifery in Trinity, said embarrassment is often a reason a new mother will not volunteer information to a medic.

"This lack of conversation about these health issues means that women's health problems remain hidden, women suffer in silence and put up with health problems that are treatable and curable and, if treated early, could prevent some of these problems from persisting into later life," she said.

Other key findings from the study included that a third of women suffered pelvic girdle pain three months after the birth, but almost two thirds of GPs did not ask them about this.

Three quarters of GPs did not ask about incontinence.

Dr Daly said a lot of women taking part in the survey said they were learning from it. She said it was difficult to accept that the academic research was informing women about key life-altering health issues simply because they got the opportunity to take part.

"This means that thousands of the women birthing in Ireland are missing out on vital information that could have a positive impact on their health and well-being," she said.

Some of the detailed findings included:

* Almost two thirds of women were not asked about pelvic pain by their GP in the first three months after giving birth and half were not asked by their midwife or public health nurse.

* One in five women reported experiencing pain during sex a year after giving birth.

* More than eight out of ten women were not asked about their sexual health by their GP in the first three months after birth and almost nine out of ten were not asked about relationship problems.

* Half the women were not asked about depression by their GP and one in three were not asked about it by their public health nurse in the first three months after giving birth.

Dr Daly called for healthcare professionals to find time for women and ask them questions and to get the necessary information out.

She also said there is urgent need for information on women's postpartum health at national level.

"The potential impact of gathering this type of information is enormous; it will inform healthcare professionals and women about the extent of the health problems women experience after birth, and by having this information, policy makers will know where to target services," she said.

The Mammi study is funded by the Health Research Board, the Health Service Executive, Trinity, Friends of the Coombe, Science Without Borders Brazil, and Friends of the Rotunda.

Its sample represents almost 10% of all first-time mothers giving birth in Ireland in a given year, one of the largest prospective maternal health studies globally.

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