A task force for the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) says it's time to frame postpartum care as an "ongoing process" requiring a personalized, cross-disciplinary approach—including the use of physical therapy when appropriate. APTA and its Section on Women's Health have registered strong support of the recommendations.
In a committee opinion issued in May, ACOG's Presidential Task Force on Redefining the Postpartum Visit embraced the concept of the "fourth trimester," the idea that mother and child need ongoing care through at least the first 12 weeks after delivery. According to the task force, the fourth-trimester concept stands in contrast to the practice of an "arbitrary" single encounter with a primary care provider, often at 6 weeks after giving birth.
Instead, the task force recommends contact with a maternal care provider within the first 3 weeks postpartum, during which the provider and patient would discuss a wide range of postpartum issues—from feelings of depression to the need for physical therapy to address incontinence and resumption of physical activity. Later, but within 12 weeks postpartum, a "comprehensive postpartum visit" should take place, according to the recommendations. That visit would also serve as a transition into ongoing well-woman care.
The formal acknowledgement of physical therapy's role in postpartum care represents a significant conceptual shift, according to Carrie Pagliano, PT, DPT, president of the APTA Section on Women's Health.
"Physical therapy has played a role in the postpartum health of women for many years; however, patient access to care was often limited to mothers who have a referring provider having prior experience with physical therapy, or it was simply left to the patient to find her own answers for her postpartum issues," Pagliano said. "Formal recognition of physical therapy in the fourth trimester not only recognizes our expertise in this area of care but provides a clearly stated standard of care for physicians providing postpartum care options for their patients."
In a joint letter to ACOG on behalf the section and APTA, Pagliano and APTA President Sharon Dunn, PT, PhD, applauded the inclusion of physical therapists as a part of the health team envisioned in the recommendations.
"Physical therapists' knowledge base and expertise related to the assessment and treatment of urinary and fecal incontinence, and for perinatal musculoskeletal issues including sexual dysfunction, pelvic girdle, and low back pain, as well as diastasis recti and painful scar tissue, will complement the contributions of other health care providers working in this important area of practice," the letter states. "Including physical therapy as a standard of postpartum care will increase the resources available for women to return to or improve their quality of life."
For its part, the task force hopes the recommendations will influence payment and other policies around postpartum care, and will help to underscore the importance of fourth-trimester care among new mothers, among whom an estimated 40% never attend a single postpartum visit
"The recognition of the fourth trimester is extremely important," Pagliano said. "Historically, women have talked about postpartum issues among themselves but may have been told 'that's just what happens when you have a baby.' These recommendations move the conversation into the light, providing a clear pathway, opening opportunities to discuss prevention, education, and treatment options for mothers following birth."