Maternal Mortality

The American maternal mortality crisis: The role of racism and bias


April 11-17 marked the third annual national Black Maternal Health Week, an event launched in 2017 by the Atlanta-based Black Mamas Matter Alliance (BMMA), in part to “deepen the national conversation about black maternal health.”

Around the same time, emerging data showing higher mortality rates among black patients versus patients of other races with COVID-19 opened similar dialogue fraught with questions about what might explain the disturbing health disparities.

Rebekah Gee, MD, an ob.gyn. and former Secretary of the Louisiana Department of Health. ACOG

Dr. Rebekah Gee

“It’s kind of surprising to me that people are shocked by these [COVID-19] disparities,” Rebekah Gee, MD, an ob.gyn. who is director of the Louisiana State University Health System in New Orleans and a driving force behind initiatives addressing racial disparities in maternal health, said in an interview. “I mean if you’re not shocked by four or five black women dying for every white women that dies in childbirth, I don’t know what would wake you up. If this is it, great – and certainly every moment is a moment for learning – but these COVID-19 disparities should not be surprising to people who have been looking at data.”

Veronica Gillispie, MD, an ob.gyn. and medical director of the Louisiana Perinatal Quality Collaborative and Pregnancy-Associated Mortality Review, was similarly baffled that the news was treated as a revelation.

Veronica Gillispie, MD, an ob.gyn.and medical director of the Louisiana Perinatal Quality Collaborative and Pregnancy-Associated Mortality Review

Dr. Veronica Gillispie

That news includes outcomes data from New York showing that in March there were 92.3 and 74.3 deaths per 100,000 black and Hispanic COVID-19 patients, respectively, compared with 45.2 per 100,000 white patients.

“Now there’s a task force and all these initiatives to look at why this is happening, and I think those of us who work in maternal mortality are all saying, ‘We know why it’s happening,’ ” she said. “It’s the same thing we’ve been telling people why it’s been happening in maternal mortality.

“It’s implicit bias and structural racism.”

Facing hard numbers, harder conversations

The U.S. maternal mortality rate in 2018 was 17 per 100,000 live births – the highest of any similarly wealthy industrialized nation, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS) reported in January. That’s a striking statistic in its own right. Perhaps more striking is the breakdown by race.

Hispanic women had the lowest maternal mortality rate at 12 per 100,000 live births, followed by non-Hispanic white women at 15.

The rate for non-Hispanic black women was 37 per 100,000 live births.

Numerous factors contribute to these disparities. Among those listed by the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists’ chief executive officer Maureen G. Phipps, MD, in a press statement on the NCHS data, are care access issues, lack of standardization of care, bias, and racism. All of these must be addressed if the disparities in maternal and other areas of care are to be eliminated, according to Dr. Phipps.

“The NCHS data confirmed what we have known from other data sources: The rate of maternal deaths for non-Hispanic black women is substantially higher than the rates for non-Hispanic white women,” she wrote. “Continued efforts to improve the standardization of data and review processes related to U.S. maternal mortality are a necessary step to achieving the goal of eliminating disparities and preventable maternal mortality.”

However, such efforts frequently encounter roadblocks constructed by the reluctance among “many academics, policy makers, scientists, elected officials, journalists, and others responsible for defining and responding to the public discourse” to identify racism as a root cause of health disparities, according to Zinzi D. Bailey, ScD, former director of research and evaluation for the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, and colleagues.

In the third of a three-part conceptual report in The Lancet, entitled America: Equity and Equality in Health, Dr. Bailey and colleagues argued that advancing health equity requires a focus on structural racism – which they defined as “the totality of ways in which societies foster racial discrimination via mutually reinforcing inequitable systems (e.g., in housing, education, employment, earning, benefits, credit, media, healthcare, and criminal justice, etc.) that in turn reinforce discriminatory beliefs, values, and distribution of resources.”

In their series, the authors peeled back layer upon layer of sociological and political contributors to structural racism throughout history, revealing how each laid a foundation for health inequity over time. They particularly home in on health care quality and access.

“Interpersonal racism, bias, and discrimination in healthcare settings can directly affect health through poor health care,” they wrote, noting that “almost 15 years ago, the Institute of Medicine report entitled Unequal Treatment: Confronting Racial and Ethnic Disparities in Health Care, documented systematic and pervasive bias in the treatment of people of color resulting in substandard care.”

That report concluded that “bias, stereotyping, prejudice, and clinical uncertainty on the part of healthcare providers” likely play a role in the continuation of health disparities. More recent data – including the NCHS maternal mortality data – show an ongoing crisis.

A study of 210 experienced primary care providers and 190 community members in the Denver area, for example, found substantial evidence of implicit bias against both Latino and African American patients. The authors defined implicit bias as “unintentional and even unconscious” negative evaluation of one group and its members relative to another that is expressed implicitly, such as through negative nonverbal behavior.

“Activated by situational cues (e.g., a person’s skin color), implicit bias can quickly and unknowingly exert its influence on perception, memory, and behavior,” they wrote.

In their study, Implicit Association Test and self-report measures of bias showed similar rates of implicit bias among the providers and community members, with only a slight weakening of ethnic/racial bias among providers after adjustment for background characteristics, which suggests “a wider societal problem,” they said.

A specific example of how implicit bias can manifest was described in a 2016 report addressing the well-documented under-treatment of pain among black versus white patients. Kelly M. Hoffman, PhD, and colleagues demonstrated that a substantial number of individuals with at least some medical training endorse false beliefs regarding biological differences between black and white patients. For example, 25% of 28 white residents surveyed agreed black individuals have thicker skin, and 4% believed black individuals have faster blood coagulation and less sensitivity in their nerve endings.

Those who more strongly endorsed such erroneous beliefs were more likely to underestimate and undertreat pain among black patients, the authors found.

Another study, which underscored the insidiousness of structural racism, was reported in Science. The authors identified significant racial bias in an algorithm widely used by health systems, insurers, and practitioners to allocate health care resources for patients with complex health needs. The algorithm, which affects millions of patients, uses predictions of future health care costs rather than future illness to determine who should receive extra medical care.

The problem is that unequal care access for black patients skews lower the foundational cost data used for making those predictions. Correcting the algorithm would increase the percentage of black patients receiving additional medical help from 17.7% to 46.5%, the authors concluded.

This evidence of persistent racism and bias in medicine, however, doesn’t mean progress is lacking.

ACOG has partnered with numerous other organizations to promote awareness and change, including through legislation. A recent win was the enactment of the Preventing Maternal Deaths Act of 2018, a bipartisan bill designed to promote and support maternal mortality review committees in every state. A major focus of BMMA’s Black Maternal Health Week was the Black Maternal Health Momnibus Act of 2020, a nine-bill package introduced in March to comprehensively address the crisis.

But efforts like these, whether they aim to elucidate the contributors to health disparities or to directly target structural and overt racism and root out implicit bias in medical care, are nothing new. As Dr. Bailey and colleagues noted, a challenge is getting the message across because efforts to avoid tough conversations around these topics are nothing new, either.

Dr. Gee attested to that during a maternal mortality panel discussion at the 2019 ACOG meeting where she spoke about the resistance she encountered in 2016 when she was appointed secretary of the Louisiana Health Department and worked to make racism and bias a foundational part of the discussion on improving maternal and fetal outcomes.

She established the first Office of Health Equity in the state – and the first in the nation to not only require measurement outcomes by race but also explicitly address racial bias at the outset. The goal wasn’t just to talk about it but to “plan for addressing equity in every single aspect of what we do with ... our case equity action teams.”

“At our first maternal mortality quality meetings we insisted on focusing on equity at the very outset, and we had people that left when we started talking about racism,” she said, noting that others said it was “too political” to discuss during an election year or that equity was something to address later.

“We said no. We insisted on it, and I think that was very important because all ships don’t rise with the tide, not with health disparities,” she said, recounting an earlier experience when she led the Louisiana Birth Outcomes Initiative: “I asked to have a brown-bag focused on racism at the department so we could talk about the impact of implicit bias on decision making, and I was told that I was a Yankee who didn’t understand the South and that racism didn’t really exist here, and what did I know about it – and I couldn’t have the brown-bag.”

That was in 2011.

Fast-forward to April 24, 2020. As Dr. Gee shared her perspective on addressing racism and bias in medicine, she was preparing for a call regarding the racial disparities in COVID-19 outcomes – the first health equity action sanctioned by Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards (D).

“I think we really set the stage for these discussions,” she said.


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