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Northern Health world-first mental health screening trial a success

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By Colin MacGillivray

The trial of a world-first digital screening service at Epping-based Northern Health has produced encouraging results for the mental health of women before and after giving birth.

The Centre of Perinatal Excellence, COPE, is Australia’s peak body for perinatal mental health, supporting the mental health of mothers in the months before and after they give birth.

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COPE developed an online screening tool called iCOPE, a digital version of a questionnaire previously completed with pen and paper by health professionals and designed to identify women at risk of developing a mental health problem during or after pregnancy.

Northern Health and Monash Health in Melbourne’s south-east were among the first adopters of the new technology, and COPE executive director Nicole Highet said the early success of the program had seen it rolled out Australia-wide in partnership with the Federal Government.

Dr Highet said iCOPE streamlined and simplified the process for both health professionals and patients.

“We realised it could be done much more efficiently if we digitised the entire process. It means women can be sent the questions prior to a consultation and answer them on their own phones,” she said.

“It saves health professionals lots of time and gives them more time to have a conversation.

“The women can also nominate to receive their own personal report that goes through what their results mean and links them with different information depending on what their results are.”

Dr Highet said iCOPE was currently available in 13 languages and would soon expand to 25, allowing women from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds to more easily engage with the health system.

“Northern Health [services] a very multicultural population,” she said.

“It means women can do their screening and receive their report in their native language, which is much more efficient and effective than trying to find interpreters to do the screening.”

Dr Highet said the COVID-19 pandemic had made a service like iCOPE even more valuable.

“We found as a result of COVID, at a time when perinatal mental health problems were increasing, screening rates were decreasing. That’s why the digital screening process is so important right now,” she said.

“We know women are more likely to have telehealth appointments … and screening digitally is a COVID-safe solution.”

Dr Highet said patients found the online service less intrusive than an in-person questionnaire.

“Often there is a high level of shame and stigma that can prevent women from answering honestly when answering the questions,” she said.

“We know iCOPE, compared to pen and paper, gives patients a greater level of privacy and they also know they’re getting something back through their own patient report rather than feeling like they’re doing a test.”

Northern Health maternity services completed nearly 3000 iCOPE screenings during early clinical trials between April 2019 and March 2020.

Northern Health divisional director of nursing operations Nicole Carlon said perinatal anxiety and depression were serious issues, with more than 100,000 Australian parents affected each year.

“With 3200 births across our health service each year, the iCOPE screening tool will make a real difference to our community, allowing us to provide improved mental health support to more new mums and mums-to-be than ever before,” she said.

iCOPE is free for all public hospitals and maternal and child health clinics across Australia, and available for purchase to private medical practitioners delivering perinatal care, including GPs, obstetricians, gynaecologists and private maternity hospitals.

People can visit for more information.

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