Pregnant women in the United States face a higher risk of death than their peers in comparable countries around the world. A deeper look at the disturbing data uncovers a preventable public health crisis marked by profound racial disparities.
Below are five steps we can take to protect mothers and newborns in our communities. Wayside Recovery Center also invites you to attend our free virtual education sessions on maternal health disparities, featuring presentations by doctors, nurses, doulas, social workers, reproductive medicine researchers and local and national experts on maternal healthcare.
Name the problem driving our maternal healthcare mortality crisis: systemic racism
The United States has the highest maternal and infant mortality rates among all other countries like it in the world. Black and Indigenous infants are twice as likely to die before their first birthday than White infants – a gap wider now than in the era of chattel slavery. Pregnant Black women in America are also 3-4 times more likely to die than their White peers regardless of income, lifestyle, education level, overall health and other factors. The driving force behind these inequalities is not race, but deep and systemic racism.
We could prevent an estimated 60% of these pregnancy-related deaths in America – more than 400 women each year. But to do so, we need to address the root problem of systemic racism as a social determinant of health.
Last year, Wayside hosted acclaimed family physician and epidemiologist Dr. Camara Phyllis Jones, who shared three powerful allegories that begin to tell the story of how racism is fueling a public health crisis for people of color in America. Jones describes the “cliff of good health” – the point where inequities push some community members off the cliff, while others are protected by social safety nets.
In 2020, the Minnesota State House took an important step in becoming the first legislature in the nation to pass a statewide declaration naming racism a public health crisis. A new House Select Committee on Racial Justice formed, and its focus on reducing maternal heath disparities led to the passing of the “Dignity in Pregnancy and Childbirth Act.”
Diversify the medical field
We know that representation in the medical field leads to better outcomes for all patients. A recent study co-authored by University of Minnesota associate professor Dr. Rachel Hardeman revealed for the first time that when Black newborns are cared for by Black physicians, they are almost half as likely to die. Last year, Wayside invited Hardeman to explain her landmark findings in a public education forum now available online for viewing.
The call for increased racial diversity among practitioners is not just about diversity for diversity’s sake. The data is clear that it saves lives. Achieving racial diversity in medicine starts further upstream with ensuring that students at all levels including in medical school have access to racially diverse teachers. The fact is that all students do better when they have access to Black, Indigenous and other teachers of color.
Listen to the experiences of pregnant women of color and providers
It is crucial to listen to the voices of Black women and women of color who face the brunt of maternal health disparities in our community. Too often, these women experience a traumatic birthing experience in which their health complaints are downplayed or dismissed by providers, or their birthing plans are altered or ignored without permission. They may also encounter rude or unprofessional attitudes from staff, driven by implicit racial bias or for women experiencing the chronic condition of substance use disorder, social stigma.
Serena Williams famously had a near-death experience after the birth of her first child, where doctors initially dismissed her symptoms of a dangerous blood clot. For every Serena Williams, there are countless stories of Black women that you don’t hear about, the “hidden figures” among the 700 women who die each year from pregnancy and the many more who experience serious medical complications.
Wayside has hosted several events featuring women and providers sharing the stories of their lived birth experiences first-hand – check out this community panel discussion, or Black feminist physician scientist Dr. Karen Scott’s research presentation featuring patient narratives.
Recognize the expertise of doulas and midwives
There is important knowledge held beyond the traditional medical community. Black midwives have played a vital role for centuries in improving care and outcomes in our country, but modern policy concerns have systemically pushed them out of the field. Doulas currently struggle to earn a living wage in Minnesota and around the country. Creating sustainable pathways towards midwifery and doula care is key. Wayside Recovery Center has integrated doulas into our care team to provide culturally appropriate emotional, educational and physical support to our clients.
In March, Wayside will host doulas Shanika Clarke and Michelle Henderson in a free, public virtual session where they will share their experiences in the healthcare field.
Educate yourself about maternal and infant health disparities
Wayside Recovery Center has launched a virtual community education series – free and open to all – to shine a bright light on maternal and infant health disparities in Minnesota and beyond. There is a growing movement to demand change and an end to a preventable crisis. Please join us in discussion between patients, community members, providers and policymakers to learn more about what is at stake.
Learn more about the speakers, access past recordings and register for sessions in March and April at waysiderecovery.org/maternalhealth.
Register for our upcoming presentation topics:
- Pregnancy, Food and Eating for Two with Dr. Sharan Rahman (March 23): Discussion of the importance of nutrition, knowing what to eat and what to avoid during pregnancy.
- Medication-Assisted Treatment (MAT) Training (April 21) – All-day training session focusing on culturally-responsive approaches to working with East African women and families experiencing substance use disorder.
Gain a foundational understanding on the topic of maternal health disparities with these past presentations available for viewing:
- Addressing Racism as a Public Health Crisis with Dr. Camara Phyllis Jones
- Historical Perspectives on Black Maternal Health Disparities with Ruth Richardson
- Infant Health and COVID-19 with Dr. Veronica Gillispie-Bell
- Reproductive Justice and Police Violence with Dr. Rachel Hardeman
This series is funded fully through the State Opioid Response (SOR) grant from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) and the Minnesota Department of Human Services (MN DHS). Nothing in these materials constitutes a direct or indirect endorsement by SAMHSA or the MN DHS of content, services, or policies.