Against the backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic and ongoing national conversations around racial injustice, it is more important than ever that we identify and root out systemic discrimination – including in our health care system. As an ob.gyn., I’ve spent my entire career making sure that women receive the best care, and have witnessed firsthand the results of a system that provides differing levels of care based on one’s socioeconomic level, race, or ethnicity.
This disparity is borne out in this country’s maternal health outcomes. For example, thefrom the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicate that the maternal mortality rate for black women, 37.1 deaths per 100,000 live births, is more than double the rate for white women at 14.7. In addition, the black infant mortality rate, at 11.4 per 1,000 live births, is also the white infant mortality rate, 4.9. While many of these differences stem from discriminatory levels of coverage and care after delivery, just as important is the coverage and care before delivery: prenatal care.
Prenatal care includes a variety of screening tests, including those that can help expecting mothers identify whether the baby is more or less likely to have certain genetic disorders. These tests include traditional and less accurate options like serum or combined screening, and newer noninvasive prenatal testing (NIPT) options that use blood samples from the mother to analyze the baby’s DNA.
Research already has demonstrated that NIPT is the most accurate and effective screening option for common chromosomal abnormalities (. A 2015 New England Journal of Medicine study showed that, without access to NIPT, 22% of pregnancies with Down syndrome were missed. With older screening methods, 5.4% of positive results for Down syndrome were false, compared with 0.06% of the NIPT tests ( ). Older, less accurate screening tests cause unnecessary referrals to specialists for possible invasive testing, resulting in additional costs and undue stress on women and their families.
And yet, troubling new data have shown that black and Hispanic women have less access to NIPT than white women. Currently, NIPT is available to all California women throughas a second-tier test. Many women, however, decide to opt out or go outside of the state program to have NIPT as a first-tier test, choosing private payer or other plans instead. New data shared by the California Department of Public Health with ob.gyns. and maternal-fetal medicine physicians in California showed that white women who opted out of California’s state-funded prenatal screening program were more than twice as likely to gain access to NIPT as black and Hispanic women (39%-17%). We can assume this to be true of women outside California as well – women who have no access to a state-funded program like California’s and depend solely on private payer or other health care plans. In fact, although some commercial insurance companies do cover NIPT, noninvasive prenatal screening is not covered by large insurance companies like and .
As ob.gyns., physicians, and health professionals, we need to ask ourselves: Why is there such a great disparity in the access of superior and more effective NIPT options for black and Hispanic women?
Many reasons are apparent. There are significant differences by ethnic and racial groups in their knowledge of the availability of prenatal testing. Furthermore, there are higher levels of mistrust along certain racial and ethnic lines of the medical system in this country; specific religious or ethnic beliefs also may obviate the use of prenatal testing or diagnosis. Significant differences also exist in the types of health coverage by race and ethnicity, ultimately impacting the ability to have prenatal testing. Finally, there are different physician group recommendations. While medical societies such as the, International Society for Prenatal Diagnosis, and the all have long endorsed newer NIPT option for all pregnant women, two of the national physician groups that make recommendations about what care pregnant women should be able to access – the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists and the Society for Maternal-Fetal Medicine – only recently have recommended broad access to NIPT. As a result, some state Medicaid programs have not made NIPT available to patients.
We know that racial disparities are a public health crisis in America. The recent data from the California Department of Public Health, paired with COVID-19’s disproportionate impact on blacks and Hispanics, only further illustrate the existing health disparities experienced by this country’s communities of color.
We need to root out systemic discrimination in health care and we can begin with our maternal health care. Providing equitable access to the most accurate and consistent prenatal screenings, including NIPT options, regardless of insurance plan, socioeconomic level, race, or ethnicity is paramount in starting this work.
Dr. Gaither is a double board–certified physician in ob.gyn. and maternal-fetal medicine. She is director of perinatal services for NYC Health+Hospitals/Lincoln. She reports no conflicts of interest. Email her at.