Guest Blog: We Took AIM at Maternal Mortality and Made a Difference

No woman should die on what ought to be the happiest day of her life. Yet that is exactly what’s happening in the United States at a rate unmatched in the developed world. ProPublica-NPR recently highlighted the realities of maternal mortality in an article about a 36-year-old African-American mother—an epidemiologist at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention—who died after giving birth from complications of high blood pressure.

The rates of maternal mortality in our home state of Michigan are stunning. There are 10.6 pregnancy-related deaths per 100,000 women, and African-American women die at a rate that is 4.9 times higher than white women. There are many causes of maternal death. The leading causes include heart attack or heart failure, stroke from high blood pressure, severe bleeding, serious infection, and blood clots. And, as more pregnant women have chronic health conditions such as obesity and heart disease, they become more likely to die during or after pregnancy. Even more startling is that, for every woman who dies, there are 100 more who suffer severe maternal morbidity—life-threatening injuries, infection, or disease due to chronic or acute conditions

Last month, the Alliance for Innovation for Maternal Health (AIM), a national initiative championed by 19 women’s health care organizations including ACOG, has already shown early steps toward reducing severe maternal morbidity. The goal of AIM is to reduce preventable maternal mortality and morbidity through hospital implementation of proactive patient safety bundles and resources for common pregnancy-related complications, such as preeclampsia and hemorrhage.

In 2015, Michigan became one of the first eight states to join AIM. ACOG’s Michigan Section teamed up with the Michigan Health & Hospital Association and the Michigan Department of Health & Human Services, along with the American College of Nurse Midwives and the Association of Women’s Health, Obstetrical and Neonatal Nurses to align resources and work cohesively as a single initiative for all birthing hospitals in the state. The initiative is called MIAM.

Roughly 80 hospitals in Michigan have committed to implementing the AIM safety bundles. They have also committed to collecting and reporting data on maternal outcomes to drive quality improvement. This reporting allows hospitals of similar size and capacity to assess and compare their performance and progress.

While this type of work requires a culture shift that will take time to fully adopt, we are already seeing dramatic improvements in maternal health. In Michigan alone, there has been a

  • 10.5 percent decrease in severe maternal morbidity since 2016
  • 17.9 percent decrease for other complications during labor and delivery among women who experience hemorrhage
  • Five percent decrease among women who experience hypertension

Recent data from four of the original eight AIM states, which collectively represent 266,717 births, also shows a marked difference in maternal outcomes. There has been a 20 percent decrease in the severe maternal morbidity rate.

Mother’s Day is a good reminder that we as health care providers must resolve to remain diligent in our efforts to reduce maternal mortality and morbidity. We commend each of our AIM hospitals and urge hospital administrators to stay focused on the task at hand: to provide the necessary support to make the AIM initiative a priority so we can succeed at keeping mothers safe.

For a long time, Michigan hasn’t been the safest place for moms—especially African-American moms—to give birth. The good news is that, over the past few years, the numbers have been finally going in the right direction. We are poised to continue making improvements and ensuring that every mom can safely give birth in Michigan, and every state in the country.

Written by ACOG Members Jody Jones, MD, and Matt Allswede, MD

We MUST Do Better on Maternal Health

The first time I saw a new mother die, I was early in my career. A healthy, young woman had a complication during labor and needed a C-section. While the care team delivered a healthy baby, the mother never regained consciousness and eventually passed away. I remember seeing her husband late that night in the hospital, holding his new baby. It was supposed to be the happiest moment of his life, but instead he looked completely lost.

That moment had a profound effect on me and is one of the reasons I’ve committed my career—and now my ACOG presidency—to reducing preventable maternal mortality. As I said last week at the 2018 ACOG Annual Meeting in Austin, Texas, where I was sworn in as the 69th president of ACOG, “To achieve our full potential not just as women, but as a country, and as a global community, the health of women MUST be a priority.”

As ob-gyns, we dedicate our lives to advancing women’s health, and there is no contradiction more stunning than the rise of maternal mortality and morbidity in the United States. While other countries have been able to reduce maternal deaths over the last 20 years, the U.S. continues to see rates grow. Worse yet, African American women are two to four times as likely to die from pregnancies than Caucasian women.

During my year as president, ACOG will continue its good work surrounding the issue of maternal mortality through three initiatives:

  1. Advocacy on the state and federal level to establish maternal mortality reviews. These state-based reviews offer a valuable opportunity to understand maternal death through a detailed review of medical records and autopsy reports. By finding causes of and contributing factors to maternal death, we can identify opportunities to prevent them.
  2.  A stronger culture of patient safety in hospitals. ACOG helped found the Alliance on Innovation on Maternal Health (AIM), a national maternal safety and quality improvement initiative to reduce maternal mortality and severe morbidity. Together with 19 partner women’s health care organizations, ACOG has worked with hospitals and health systems to implement patient safety bundles across the country. Today, 23 states are part of AIM, and it’s our goal to sign on all 50 states.
  3. A taskforce devoted to heart disease in pregnancy. Cardiovascular disease is the number one cause of death in women in the U.S. (400,000 deaths annually), and cardiovascular events and cardiomyopathy are the leading causes of maternal mortality, accounting for nearly 25 percent of deaths. This multidisciplinary taskforce will concentrate on creating evidence-based, best practice guidelines addressing screening for, diagnosis, and management of cardiovascular disease in women, before, during and after pregnancy. It will also address the pregnancy-related contributions to lifelong cardiovascular risk by evaluating the evidence, making recommendations, and prioritizing research that will drive better care.

While I’m excited to have this opportunity to focus on safe motherhood, one of the most enjoyable aspects of this position is to meet you, my fellow members. I look forward to working with you, and our new class of Fellows who took the oath last week, to provide the best clinical care to women of this country. Please connect with me on Twitter @TXmommydoc, and follow @acognews to keep up with the latest news in our profession.

A Look Back: A Year Spent Advocating for Women’s Health

Throughout my long career as an ob-gyn, I’ve never been witness to a more intense national focus on the health care provided to American women than I have in this past year as president of ACOG. We’ve seen the deaths of pregnant women during and after childbirth take center stage as our understanding of the embarrassing U.S. maternal mortality rate grew. Countless labor and delivery unit closures at rural hospitals across the country have drawn attention to access to care, and many were shocked to learn that nearly half of U.S. counties lack a practicing ob-gyn. Legislative attacks on women’s health care have spread like wildfire, as both federal and state governments have attempted to restrict women’s ability to obtain health coverage and contraception, obstruct their access to abortion care, and institute punitive measures for pregnant women suffering from drug addiction. From the beginning, it was clear that the challenges facing our specialty—and to us, the physicians who care for women throughout their lifespan—are immense.

Before I officially took the reins in May 2017, we were already in the midst of the work, advocating against efforts in Congress to strip health care from millions of women through the repeal of the Affordable Care Act (ACA). Women stood to lose access to no-copay contraception, affordable maternity care, and essential preventive services. Women were at risk of returning to a time where they might have been denied coverage based on a prior C-section or had to pay more for insurance based on their gender, and Medicaid coverage for hundreds of thousands of low-income women would have been in jeopardy.

All of this played out in the news as ACOG fought fiercely alongside five other provider organizations in a coalition called the Group of 6. We batted down every iteration of legislation that would have been detrimental to the health of the women in this country. We lobbied, we rallied, we spoke to the media, and we galvanized ACOG members in support of this common cause. I am proud of what we accomplished, and I count the tremendous effort to defeat ACA repeal as one of the successes of my presidency. But, of course, there was much more work to be done.

In addition to my time at ACOG, a large focus in my career has been on perinatal health disparities and maternal mortality. More than 60 percent of maternal deaths are preventable, and more than 65 percent occur within the first week postpartum. One way ACOG is trying to address this is through the Preventing the Maternal Deaths Act. It would provide grant funding to states to establish or bolster maternal mortality reviews committees tasked with studying the causes of these deaths, and how they can be prevented. But these statistics also indicate that as providers, we need to change the paradigm when it comes to postpartum care.

As part of my presidential task force, “Redefining the Postpartum Visit,” we began with the premise that postpartum care is the gateway to lifelong health. It is not sufficient for women to have one visit six weeks after childbirth. It is critical for women to be seen within the first three weeks and then on an ongoing basis as needed—up to 12 weeks—to address several issues, including breastfeeding complications, postpartum depression, and chronic conditions such as diabetes and heart disease that often persist long after pregnancy. Women have multiple intersecting health needs, so we must facilitate care coordination between multiple providers to ensure women are able to seamlessly access the support and care they need. The task force just released a Committee Opinion this week and, in the coming months, a companion online toolkit for providers will be developed to assist in providing more holistic care. The latest article from ProPublica outlines how this reinvention of postpartum care will require “sweeping” changes in medical practice and throughout the maternal care system if we are to truly optimize the health of moms.

Another focus of my presidency has been on innovation in technology to improve women’s health, particularly telehealth and telemedicine. According to a Health Affairs study, nine percent of rural counties experienced the loss of all hospital obstetric services between 2004 and 2014. Through my “Telehealth Task Force,” we have been working to develop best practices in ob-gyn to improve access and address fragmentation in care. This has significant implications for the Levels of Maternal Care initiative, which focuses specifically on care access in rural settings. It relies on communication and care coordination between hospitals and birthing centers so that women can be transferred to and receive care from a facility that offers the level of care that best suits their needs. Telemedicine will be key in fostering that communication.

The task force remains committed to addressing issues regarding safety, payment, experimental e-obstetrics, virtual education, video conferencing, virtual monitoring, apps, and the crossover between inpatient and outpatient care. In the future, a telehealth Committee Opinion will be developed, and an ongoing work group will be established to continue this important effort. We are also combating the access issue from a legislative perspective through the Improving Access to Maternity Care Act. It has been passed in the House and currently resides in the Senate. Through this legislation, an official maternal health designation through the Health Resources and Services Administration will be created to better determine shortage areas. This in turn will allow more providers to serve in these areas through loan forgiveness programs and scholarships offered by the National Health Service Corps.

However, in our efforts to improve care on a systematic basis, we must not forget how critical it is to address implicit biases that permeate every aspect of care delivery and contribute to the racial health disparities that have led to our high maternal mortality rate. An often-repeated statistic, is that black women in the United States are three or four times more likely to die during childbirth than white women. It is shocking to most, but it shouldn’t be. Racial health disparities have a long history, and events as recent as what happened in Charlottesville last year remind us we still have a long way to go.

Even when black women have access to health care and advanced education, they are still at a disadvantage when it comes to receiving the quality of care on par with their white counterparts, and the constant stressors of racism and racial biases often put them at higher risk for chronic health conditions. Cardiovascular disease disproportionately affects black women, and stress has been linked as a possible contributor. I have been working with Dr. Lisa Hollier, ACOG’s incoming president, to partner on initiatives with the American Heart Association to address issues with women and cardiovascular disease, and I am confident that she will make marked improvements in this area.

It has been a whirlwind. I have traveled the country and the world in pursuit of advancing women’s health and ensuring that the clock is not turned back. I have worked alongside ACOG leadership and Fellows, including my esteemed colleagues, Drs. Hollier and Gellhaus, to improve maternal health for all women in the United States and serve as a model for women’s health care throughout the world. It has been a rewarding journey, and we have made incredible progress, but I am ready to pass the torch, and wish Dr. Hollier success as she carries it forward—there is much more work to be done, and I look forward to working with her this year as immediate past president.

How Dedication to Black Maternal Health Honors the Legacy of Henrietta Lacks

Sixty-seven years ago, two tissue samples taken from a young, African-American woman diagnosed with cervical cancer led to the most important cell lines in medical research. Her name was, of course, Henrietta Lacks. Today, it would be difficult to find someone who isn’t familiar with her story. The “immortal” He-La cells have been used in more than 74,000 studies and have led to the discovery of the Polio and HPV vaccines, treatments for diseases, including diabetes and AIDS and other life-saving research around the world.

The contributions Lacks made to medical science have been heralded in the best-selling book, “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks,” by the foundation created in her name, in countless news stories, in an HBO movie starring Oprah Winfrey and by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) through the establishment of a working group in her honor. In 2013, the NIH stated that Lacks and her family were the “greatest philanthropists of our time.” However, it wouldn’t be until 1987, 36 years after her cells were replicated and shared widely amongst the research community, that the NIH would institute a policy “encouraging” the inclusion of minorities in clinical studies. And it would be another six years before Congress would make it law through a section in the NIH Revitalization Act of 1993 entitled Women and Minorities as Subjects in Clinical Research. The reason for this move by the NIH is obvious. We cannot appropriately evaluate the effects of drugs in clinical trials without a racially diverse sample.

Therefore, it should be considered one of the greatest conundrums of our time that a black woman is responsible for thousands of breakthroughs in biomedical research and yet, in 2018, black women are three or four times more likely to die during childbirth than their white counterparts. When it was discovered that Lacks had cervical cancer, she had just given birth to her fifth child. At 31 years of age, Lacks suffered from a severe hemorrhage after childbirth and died eight months later after receiving routine cancer treatments and experiencing continued abdominal pain.

By today’s definition, Lacks would be counted among the women lost to maternal mortality. According to the Health Resources and Services Administration, the maternal mortality rate in the 1950s was 83.3 deaths per 100,000 live births. And while that number has decreased significantly since then, it is well-known that the United States is considered one of the most medically advanced developed countries— and yet, it has the highest maternal mortality rate amongst its peers, with even higher numbers for minority women.

I’ve done several media interviews on the topic of racial disparities in maternal mortality. Reporters always ask why these disparities exist, especially among well-educated, affluent black women where access to care is not an issue. In my interview with Essence magazine, I explain that there is a complex web of causes, but it often involves social determinants of health and structural barriers to health care. Whether an African-American woman is rich or poor, has a GED or a PhD, she is susceptible to morbidity and mortality and implicit biases of race and class. This not only impacts the quality of care she receives, but can also have negative physiological effects. The relationship between stress and how we respond to that stress physiologically has well-documented associations with prematurity and cardiovascular disease. The “microaggressions” that black women endure throughout their lives also make them predisposed to chronic conditions that can make a pregnancy high risk, such as hypertension and diabetes. It is a failure in our medical care as providers if we do not 1) recognize and accept this and 2) meet the necessary cultural and systemic challenges that impact health outcomes.

During my ACOG presidency, much of my focus has been on providing guidance on how to make these system level changes. In May, ACOG will release a revised “Optimizing Postpartum Care” Committee Opinion developed by my presidential task force, “Redefining the Postpartum Visit,” and the Committee on Obstetric Practice. It will stress the importance of the fourth trimester and propose a new paradigm for postpartum care. When women fail to receive postpartum care, it impedes management of chronic health conditions. Attendance rates are often lower among populations with limited resources, which contributes to health disparities.

As we celebrate Black History Month and the contributions of African-American mothers like Henrietta Lacks, we must honor her legacy by not accepting the deaths of black women from pregnancy and childbirth as a reality of race.

Four Ways ACOG Has Impacted Global Women’s Health in Just the Past Year

In 1994, my wife and I arrived for our first two-week mission in the Dominican Republic and were stunned by the line of people waiting outside of the hospital for us. Since medical school more than a decade earlier, we had dreamed of participating in mission projects around the world to help women in dire need of basic medical care. But then my wife began her career as a nurse, we started our family, and after residency I went into private practice. So, that goal went by the wayside. However, our trip to the Dominican Republic quickly reignited our hopes of providing necessary ob-gyn services in low resource settings. Living in the United States, it’s easy to forget that many countries around the world are battling poverty and disease and don’t have the same infrastructure and safety nets we do. After that first trip, I came home to a fully equipped operating room with the proper tools and lights that worked, my wife didn’t have to hold a flashlight during surgery because the power was out. We had carpeting and hot water at home. From that point on, my eyes were opened.

Since that first trip, I’ve continued to travel and offer my services to advance health care in struggling countries. This work has taught me that we can really make a difference in global women’s health by sharing our knowledge and resources as ob-gyns. As my presidential term at ACOG comes to a close, it is an appropriate time to reflect on what we have accomplished from my six-point plan, developed over a year ago, to help improve the health of women and children worldwide, with a focus on training and providing health care around the world.

The first step was to make these kinds of missions more easily identified and attainable. While it’s often not realistic to leave your practice for months; two weeks is doable. That’s why we developed a listing or database of non-profit organizations involved in two-week mission work in which some of our members had participated. Now on the ACOG website there is a global health resource center. ACOG members can discover more information about each organization, check these organizations’ calendars for potential projects, talk with ACOG fellows and junior fellows who have done projects, and sign up. And we must continue to get the word out so more members use and add to the database.

In partnership with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, we’ve also formed and grown the Alliance for Innovation in Maternal Health (AIM), which creates instructional and educational portfolios, or “safety bundles,” to fight high rates of maternal mortality in the United States and now Malawi. Women living in rural areas of Malawi give birth at community health centers that can’t perform operative vaginal deliveries or C-sections. When these situations arise or other complications occur, women are transferred to the central hospital in the city, most often without any attempts at stabilization prior to transport. They are often in poor condition when they arrive, which results in many otherwise preventable maternal deaths. The AIM postpartum hemorrhage bundle has been instituted into practice at both the community health clinic and referral hospital. To date, more than 130 local people have participated in vital simulations to help these patients. And while we do not have formal data on the program yet, we know that several women have received life-saving care because the teams were able to communicate and execute care in a way that they didn’t before. We anticipate many more successes that will hopefully mirror the kinds of gains we have seen here in the United States.

In addition, last year ACOG partnered with Health Volunteers Overseas, a nonprofit group that helps educate and train local health providers in underdeveloped countries in various areas of obstetrics and gynecology. It begins with local providers telling us what they need and then we come up with a plan and work together to make it happen. As of today, we have completed four site assessments and will begin offering global service opportunities for fellows in the four countries by May 2017.

Lastly, in Ethiopia, we received a five-year grant to develop a plan in partnership with the Ethiopian Society of Obstetricians and Gynecologists to strengthen their ob-gyn residency training programs and curriculum, improve continuing medical education, support the publishing and accessibility of clinical outcomes research, and develop an ob-gyn examination and certification program. Since its inception, the program has made great strides by working “shoulder-to-shoulder” with the Ethiopians. As a result of this program, there is now interest from other African countries to begin the same program.

The bottom line is, many women around the world are lacking access to quality, evidence-based health care and they are paying the price with their lives. As ob-gyns, we have the power to prevent this by using our skills to help reduce global maternal morbidity and mortality, as well as improved quality of life. These programs are a prime example of how we can achieve that by dedicating some of our time and effort to a cause that is greater than ourselves. While we’ve accomplished a lot, we still have much to do. So, even if you aren’t sure you have the time, consider any way you can contribute. Believe me, it will make a difference.

“AIM”ing to Reduce U.S. Maternal Mortality

During the past several weeks, you would be hard-pressed not to find an article about the dismal maternal mortality rates in this country. In fact, it was a study published in our very own Green Journal that sparked the latest national conversation (with Texas at the epicenter) about why the most modern, industrialized country in the world is failing so miserably at reducing the numbers of deaths associated with pregnancy and childbirth. However, the truth of the matter is, we already know why.

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Act Globally

Working in the field of global health has been a passion of mine since my wife, Melanie, and I served on a medical mission in the Dominican Republic many years ago. I saw first-hand the need to increase the quality of health care provided to women in other countries. All women require access to quality health care no matter where they live, and training and educating health workers is key to ensuring that care is available.

Mothers with babies in Vietnam by Sandy DoThe World Health Organization reports that almost all (99 percent) of the nearly 300,000 maternal deaths every year occur in developing countries. Two of the most common cancers affecting women – breast and cervical cancers – are of growing global concern. These alarming statistics are what make our partnership with Health Volunteer Overseas (HVO) so important. For nearly 30 years, HVO has empowered health care professionals in resource-scarce countries with knowledge and skills to address the health care needs of their communities.

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Call to Action for an International Day for Maternal Health and Rights

Vineeta Gupta MD, JD, LL.M Technical Director, Global Women's Health American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists

Vineeta Gupta MD, JD, LL.M
Technical Director, Global Women’s Health
American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists

A woman dies from pregnancy or childbirth every two minutes. Almost all of these deaths (99%) are in developing countries. The most heartbreaking part is that the vast majority of these deaths are preventable.

As the nation’s leading group of physicians providing health care for women, ACOG strongly advocates for quality health care for women – everywhere.

That’s why, in an effort to demonstrate the urgency of global action to protect maternal health and rights, ACOG recognizes today as the International Day for Maternal Health and Rights.

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ACOG as a World Partner in Women’s Health

I am proud of what ACOG is doing in so many areas of women’s health, but I have particular pride in our global health initiatives. On June 13-14, I participated with a very dedicated group of ACOG Fellows in the Global Operations Advisory Group meeting to develop a strategic plan for our global operations. For two rewarding days, we created plans to help extend ACOG’s contributions to our ob-gyn colleagues in other countries and the women in those countries who are so in need of improvements in health care.

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Guest Blog: The Value of Education and Outreach to Improve Global Women’s Health

Taraneh Shirazian, MD

Millions of women around the globe lack basic rights—rights to health care, rights to family planning services, and the right to lead long, healthy lives. Pregnancy and childbirth are major threats to women in underserved areas of the world with over 300,000 women dying yearly from their associated complications, unattended by trained medical professionals. While most of these deaths are preventable, these women need a voice to bring the world’s attention to what is truly a global crisis in women’s health.

As ob-gyns, awareness of the scope of issues faced by women internationally should be integral to our education. Only with this foundation can we prepare ourselves for the monumental challenges of global health care delivery. Ultimately, it is our collective responsibility as women’s health care providers to give voice to and promote care for these women, whether or not we choose to work at home or abroad.

It has been my work and passion over the last seven years to develop educational resources for health care providers interested in global women’s health, including a new online course. Preparing for cultural and ethical aspects of health care delivery abroad is critical and just as essential as our medical knowledge. These skills can also allow us to take better care of women here in the US.

All women’s health providers should educate themselves on these global women’s health topics, including maternal mortality, obstetric fistula, family planning, and female genital cutting.

I encourage you to be part of a global voice for women.

Taraneh Shirazian, MD, is assistant professor and director of Global Health in the department of ob/gyn and reproductive sciences at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York.