Fertility Expert: How Mental Healthcare for Team Members and Patients Can Improve Pregnancy Outcomes and The Patient Experience

A positive patient experience depends not only on the provider's ability to recognize and provide levels of mental healthcare but also on a provider's ability to put forward the best versions of themselves. Stress is contagious, so healthcare providers should aim to reduce it from every angle.

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Just like infertility, mental health has long been a taboo topic. Thanks to efforts to destigmatize both — and recognize that these are true medical conditions — we've made incredible strides as a society in shattering the painful stigmas that can isolate us from family, friends and colleagues. And more healthcare practices are recognizing that in order to provide comprehensive care, they need to treat the entire patient – body and mind.

This is especially true as it relates to fertility care, as research has found that a large percentage of patients note that their mental health is compromised due to the physical, emotional and financial stress that treatments can trigger.

And there's a lot of science to back this up. One study found that 56% of women and 32% of men who were undergoing reproductive healthcare scored in the clinical range for depression. Anxiety scores were even higher, with 76% of women and 61% of men scoring in the clinical range for anxiety. Another recent study in Reproductive Biomedicine Online found that the stress of infertility was comparable to the stress of the first surge of the pandemic.

But what we've also come to know is that addressing the mental component of fertility care can increase positive patient outcomes. In a meta-analysis that looked at 39 different studies, researchers found that mental healthcare both increased pregnancy rates and decreased psychological distress in those seeking fertility treatment.

The results are clear: an integrated approach that considers the whole patient should be a part of every fertility practice and each patient's journey.

Improving Patient Outcomes

While it may sound like a heavy lift to incorporate mental health initiatives into a fertility practice, it's much simpler than you might estimate. There are small actions a fertility practice can take that can yield big results:

  • Ask questions: Asking patients how they're feeling mentally should be a part of your daily practice with each patient. Taking the time to listen to their fears, challenges and even small victories can increase how supported the patient feels in their journey.
  • Listen for the warning signs: Listening to your patients discuss how they are feeling can help you determine if they may need mental and emotional support during this journey before they even recognize it. Taking this proactive approach can also enhance the patient experience — and ultimately patient outcomes.
  • Be prepared: Familiarize yourself with local mental health experts who have worked in the fertility space that you can recommend to your patients. And have readily accessible written stress management materials so that they don't have to go off on their own to find answers to their mental health questions. It's important to also familiarize yourself with online and local, in-person support groups that you can recommend to patients.

The Patient Experience Starts with the Employee Experience

In reproductive medicine, all those who participate in a patient's care, including physicians, nurses and administrative staff, can become emotionally invested in that journey. In order for these professionals to support their patients, they too must feel mentally supported by their employers.

The results not only make for a happier and healthier workforce, but employee satisfaction has been shown to trickle down to patient satisfaction. And in an area of medicine that historically has not been a pleasant experience for patients, improving the employee experience through such wellness efforts is valuable.

It's also important to give employees the tools and education they need to help navigate their patients through the sensitivities of fertility treatment. Simple, proactive steps like compassion and empathy training for patient-facing staff can help guide the patient through this challenging time, lower their stress, and increase the chances of a positive outcome from their treatment.

What's more, a number of our staff members, myself included, have experienced fertility struggles. While this personal connection has been the reason for some of our team members to choose a career in the fertility industry and treat patients, it can also bring up raw emotions as they recount the difficulty of their own journeys. Even for those who haven't experienced infertility, working every day with stories of uncertainty, fear and physical/emotional pain can take a toll on mental health.

Where We Go From Here

A positive patient experience depends not only on the provider's ability to recognize and provide levels of mental healthcare but also on a provider's ability to put forward the best versions of themselves. Stress is contagious, so healthcare providers should aim to reduce it from every angle.

Whether you're a fertility patient or a provider of reproductive services, access to mental health services is an important part of the journey and can make a difference in employee experience, patient experience and outcomes.

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