To determine whether pediatric health care providers recognize maternal depressive symptoms and to explore whether maternal, provider, and visit characteristics affect pediatric providers' ability to recognize inner-city mothers with depressive symptoms.
A cross-sectional study was conducted at a hospital-based, inner-city, general pediatric clinic. Two groups of participants completed questionnaires, each unaware of the other's responses: 1) mothers who brought their children ages 6 months to 3 years for health care maintenance or a minor acute illness and 2) pediatric health care providers (attending pediatricians, pediatric trainees, and nurse practitioners). The mothers' questionnaire consisted of sociodemographic items and a self-administered assessment of depressive symptoms using the Psychiatric Symptom Index (PSI). Pediatric providers assessed child, maternal, and family functioning and documented maternal depressive symptoms. Criteria for positive identification of a mother by the pediatric health care provider were met if the provider reported one or more maternal symptoms (from a 10-item list of depressive symptoms), a rating of 4 or less on a scale of functioning, a yes response to the question of whether the mother was acting depressed, or a response that the mother was somewhat to very likely to receive a diagnosis of depression.
Of 338 mothers who completed the questionnaire, 214 (63%) were assessed by 1 of 60 pediatric providers. Seventy-seven percent of surveys were completed by the child's designated pediatric provider. The mean visit length was 23 minutes. Mothers primarily were single, were black or Hispanic, and had a mean age of 26 years (15–45 years). Almost 25% of mothers were living alone with their children. Eighty-six (40%) mothers scored ≥20 on the PSI, representing high symptom levels. Of these, 25 were identified by pediatric providers (sensitivity = 29%). A total of 104 of 128 mothers with a PSI score <20 were identified as such by providers (specificity = 81%). Pediatric providers were more likely to identify mothers who were <30 years old, living alone, and on public assistance. Also, mothers who were assessed by the child's own primary provider or by an attending pediatrician were more likely to be identified accurately than were mothers whose children were seen by a pediatric trainee or a nurse practitioner.
Pediatric health care providers did not recognize most mothers with high levels of self-reported depressive symptoms. Pediatricians may benefit from asking directly about maternal functioning or by using a structured screening tool to identify mothers who are at risk for developing depressive symptoms. In addition, training pediatric providers to identify mothers with depressive symptoms may be beneficial.