Fixing the maternal health problem in the U.S.: Signs of hope?


In the United States, nearly 4 million women a year prepare to give birth, looking forward to the joy to come. But for some, the dream turns tragic. About 700 women die each year either during their pregnancy or in the weeks after the birth. And another 60,000 have pregnancy-related or childbirth-related health issues.

Causes of death vary greatly, including hemorrhage during pregnancy or during delivery, heart conditions, and mental health issues such as substance abuse and suicide after the birth.

In 2019, the U.S. maternal death rate was 20.1 per 100,000 women, according to the CDC, significantly higher than the 17.4 per 100,000 recorded in 2018. For Black women, the maternal death rate was more than double the overall – 44 per 100,000 in 2019.

“We have to address our horrendous maternal health care system and also need to address the inequities,” says Laurie Zephyrin, MD, vice president for advancing health equity for the Commonwealth Fund, a foundation supporting independent research on health care issues. “This is an issue that has needed national attention for a long time.”

“If we look overall, our maternal death rate is more than twice that of more than 10 other high-income countries,” she said.

As sobering as the problem is, recent developments have sparked hope that reversing the course is possible. Among them:

U.S. News & World Report, long known for its rankings of hospitals, issued its first ever “Best Hospitals for Maternity” rankings Dec. 7, highlighting facilities that perform well on key quality indicators. It plans to update the report annually.

At the first-ever White House Maternal Health Day of Action on Dec. 7, Vice President Kamala Harris urged a call to action to reduce maternal deaths and pregnancy-related health problems, with extension of postpartum coverage through Medicaid programs, among other actions.

A new hospital designation called ‘’Birthing Friendly” will be established by the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services. The label will be given to facilities that take part in a program aimed at improving maternal outcomes and that use patient safety practices.

President Joe Biden’s proposed Build Back Better plan includes maternal health provisions, including $3 billion in new maternal health funding. The money will aim to grow and diversify the workforce caring for pregnant women, coordinate care better, and step up research on maternal health, among other projects.

Ongoing efforts in Congress are aimed at fixing the wide disparities in maternal health affecting Black women. Regardless of income level or education, Black women are at a higher risk of maternal death and other health issues than are White women. A Black woman with a college education is at 60% higher risk of maternal death than a White or Hispanic woman who didn’t graduate high school, according to the Commonwealth Fund.

Best hospitals for maternity

For its rankings, U.S. News and World Report reached out to the 2,700 U.S. hospitals that offer maternity services, said Ben Harder, chief of health analysis and managing editor at U.S. News & World Report.

To be recognized, a hospital had to submit data from 2019 and meet the publication’s maternity care standards. The publication received responses from just 571 hospitals, representing about two of every five births in the country.

Of those, 237 were identified as best for maternity.

As to why the response rate was not higher, Mr. Harder cited the reporting burden and says it is understandable. Some hospitals likely did not have the staff available, especially during the pandemic, to gather the data needed to be evaluated by U.S. News & World Report.

On their other evaluations, the rankings are based on Medicare data, “so hospitals don’t have to lift a finger.” He expects more hospitals will respond for their future evaluations of maternity care.

The evaluators focused on five quality measures, making a score based on the cesarean section delivery rate among first-time mothers, early elective delivery rates, unexpected newborn complication rates, breastfeeding rates, and option for vaginal birth after C-section.


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