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How Tech Can Help Curb Maternal Mortality For Health Equity

Federal leaders are calling for increased attention to digital tools for reducing maternal deaths.

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Federal and industry leaders are honing in on curbing maternal mortality rates amid efforts to improve equity in government services and further improve disparities in health care.

“Technology can be used to improve the access to health care so it can bridge that gap or any geographical barrier where a family cannot go to a doctor,” Avishek Choudhury, assistant professor at West Virginia University, told GovCIO Media & Research.

Maternal mortality rates in the U.S. are one of the highest in the world, though research says that more than 80% of pregnancy related deaths are preventable.

“People love us when we’re pregnant. And then we’re discharged, and we’re often left on our own. And we know that this is the most critical component where most maternal deaths are happening,” said Natalie Hernandez, executive director at the Center for Maternal Health Equity at Morehouse School of Medicine, said at a Washington Post event June 29.

For women of color, pregnancy-related deaths are three times more likely than white women, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“Disparities in health care are wide-ranging and can include access, quality and outcomes. Minorities are one group directly and indirectly impacted through a legacy of inequities within the health care space,” Jonathan Cherry, senior director of research operations at the March of Dimes, told GovCIO Media & Research.

Emerging technology has potential to help. Artificial intelligence can be used in predictive analytics and help the doctors who serve women who are carrying children — as long as people understand how to use the tech.

“We are assuming that community or that user has the technology, has internet connection, has electricity, and has the minimum health literacy or digital literacy to use these technologies. So if we assume all of these are present then AI can definitely help. If not, then this technology can add to the digital divide, worsening the situation,” Choudhury said.

Technology’s impact within these issues are gaining attention from Congress. Senators Bob Menendez and Dan Sullivan reintroduced legislation calling for more investment in telehealth and digital tools based on a Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) recommendation for expanding remote patient monitoring and promoting virtual training and capacity.

The Tech to Saves Moms Act “recognizes the transformative potential of technology to reduce maternal mortality and address racial disparities in maternal health outcomes. By investing in telehealth and digital tools, we can overcome barriers to care, combat implicit biases and ensure that all mothers, regardless of their location or background, have access to quality health care,” Sen. Cory Booker said in a statement.

Equity in Maternal Health

The extent of maternal mortality spreads far and wide. According to the CDC, Black infants are more than twice as likely to die before their first birthdays compared to white infants. In addition, women of color are up to 50% more likely to give birth prematurely.

“This crisis is about moms who die and those who nearly did. It’s the loss of pregnancies, and newborn babies and infants. It’s prematurity and maternal care deserts, and the social determinants of health — like quality education, housing, whether people are able to put nutritious food on the table,” Cherry said.

In January, the March of Dimes launched the March of Dimes Research Center for Advancing Maternal Health Equity, a center that will focus on combating health inequities in maternal health through research and technological development.

“The latest key health indicators show the U.S. has not moved the needle on maternal health and equity and, in fact, things are getting worse,” said March of Dimes Board of Trustees Chair Sharon Mills Higgins, in a press release in January.

In order to avoid accessibility challenges for those in underserved communities, Chounhury said technology should be developed with one’s cultural environment in mind.

“Do they need to have a smartphone? Do they need to have a desktop computer? Do they need to have a 5G internet connection to use that technology? If so, then do they have that?” Choudhury added.

While technology can help decrease maternal mortality, experts said it is not the only answer.

“Technology isn’t a panacea for the systemic problems that lead to health inequities,” Cherry said. “Unwinding a legacy of inequity won’t happen overnight, but it also won’t happen if we don’t take action now.”

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