“We have to do better at providing respectful and unbiased care to all mothers,” Debra E. Houry, MD, chief medical officer of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said in a press briefing announcing the findings, which werein the CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.
Previous research showed an increase in maternal deaths in the United States from 17.4 to 32.9 per 100,000 live births between 2018 and 2021, but approximately 80% of these deaths are preventable, wrote Yousra A. Mohamoud, PhD, of the CDC’s division of reproductive health, and colleagues.
“Maternal mortality review committees have identified discrimination as one factor contributing to pregnancy-related deaths,” the researchers wrote. Respectful care must be part of a larger strategy to prevent these deaths, they emphasized.
In the report, researchers reviewed data from 2,402 women who responded to an opt-in survey. The survey was conducted for the CDC through Porter Novelli, and no personally identifying information was included. Nearly 70% of the participants were White, 10.7% were Black, 10.2% were Hispanic, 4.8% were Asian, 1.5% were American Indian, Alaska Native, Pacific Islander, or Native Hawaiian, 2.8% were multiracial, and 0.5% were another race.
The survey included questions about maternity care experiences during pregnancy and delivery of the youngest child. For 65.5% of respondents, their youngest child was 5 years or older at the time of the survey.
Mistreatment during maternity care was defined using seven validated questions, including questions about violations of physical privacy, verbal abuse, and inattention to requests for help. Satisfaction with maternity care was defined as “very satisfied” or “somewhat satisfied.”
Participants also responded to questions about discrimination during maternity care based on factors such as race, ethnicity, skin color, age, and weight. Finally, participants were asked whether they refrained from asking questions about their health or raising concerns with health care providers.
Overall, 20.4% of respondents reported experiencing one of the defined forms of mistreatment during maternity care. The most common mistreatment reported by the women was being ignored by providers when they requested help (9.7%), followed by being shouted at or scolded (6.7%), having physical privacy violated (5.1%), and being forced to accept unwanted treatment or threatened with withholding of treatment (4.6%).
However, approximately 90% of women overall and 75% of those who reported any mistreatment were very or somewhat satisfied with their maternity care.
When stratified by race, mistreatment was reported most frequently by Black, Hispanic, and multiracial women (30%, 29%, and 27%, respectively).
Overall, 29% of women reported experiencing some type of discrimination; the most frequently reported reasons were age, weight, and income. Black women reported the highest rates of discrimination (40%) followed by multiracial women (39%) and Hispanic women (37%).
With regard to self-advocacy, 45% of women reported holding back from asking questions of health care providers; the most common reasons were thinking their health concerns were normal for pregnancy, being embarrassed, and being concerned that health care providers would consider them difficult.
In addition, more women with no insurance or public insurance at the time of delivery reported mistreatment during their maternity care than did women with private insurance (28%, 26%, and 16%, respectively).
The findings were limited by several factors, including the opt-in nature of the survey, which means that the data are likely not representative of the birthing population in the United States, the researchers noted. Other limitations included the reliance on self-reports, potential recall bias, use of English language only, and use of a combined category for respondents of American Indian, Alaska Native, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander ethnicity.
However, the results highlight the need for improving respectful care as part of a larger strategy to reduce pregnancy-related deaths, the researchers said. At the system level, quality improvement programs are needed to standardize care and support providers in recognizing and reducing biases and increasing cultural awareness and communication. At the provider level, clinicians at all points in the maternity care process can improve patient experiences by providing equitable and respectful care, and by listening to and addressing patients’ concerns.
In addition, communication campaigns and community engagement can include perspectives of patients, families, and communities to support women and encourage them to ask questions and express concerns, the researchers said.
Improving respectful care can be part of actions to reduce mortality at all levels, the researchers noted. The Hear Her campaign, developed by the CDC Foundation with funding from Merck, provides resources for pregnant and postpartum women and their support networks to help reduce pregnancy-related deaths and complications by encouraging women to share concerns with providers and to recognize urgent maternal warning signs.
The study received no outside funding. The researchers had no financial conflicts to disclose.