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(l-r) Debra Caplan, MPA, chair of the WHAMglobal board and vice-chair of the Jewish Healthcare Foundation board; Tausi Suedi, MPH, co-founder and CEO of Childbirth Survival International; Dr. Karen Wolk Feinstein, founder of WHAMglobal and president and CEO of the Jewish Healthcare Foundation; and Patricia Siger, board chair of Health Careers Futures, a supporting organization of the Jewish Healthcare Foundation.

Western PA Leading the Charge to Improve Maternal and Child Health

The Women’s Health Activist Movement Global (WHAMglobal), a supporting organization of the Jewish Healthcare Foundation (JHF), hosted a Maternal Health Leaders Symposium on October 8 at the Westin Convention Center in Downtown Pittsburgh. Nearly 130 local, national, and international leaders gathered to identify cutting-edge research and evidence-based programs that address the causes and conditions related to maternal and infant mortality, and identify action strategies.

Despite its economic, technological, and clinical prowess, the U.S. is the most dangerous place to give birth in the developed world, and among the most dangerous in which to raise a newborn. The maternal mortality rate in the U.S. is nearly three times higher than in any similar country. And, while other countries around the world are reducing maternal mortality, the rate in the U.S. keeps climbing. Many of those deaths—sixty percent, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)—are preventable. Annually, another 50,000 mothers suffer severe complications or life-threatening injuries while giving birth, according to the CDC. Babies are also in peril, with the U.S. ranking 33rd in infant mortality among countries studied by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.

JHF President and CEO Karen Wolk Feinstein, Ph.D., kicked off the Symposium by explaining that she founded WHAMglobal to channel the energy of recent women’s marches for concerted action, and to address unmet women’s health needs—a focus of JHF throughout its nearly 30-year history. WHAMglobal sought a “Big Idea,” a focus for its energy and activism that would improve the most lives. WHAMglobal challenged the region’s nonprofit organizations to pitch their top idea for improving women’s health, and crowdsourced the broader community to select a winning issue.

By the end, WHAMglobal had its directive: to address the shockingly high maternal and infant mortality rates in the U.S. WHAMglobal aims to accomplish those goals by studying high-quality maternal care models from around the world, championing policy and practice reforms, and forming a strong network of women’s health advocates.

“There is no magic bullet solution to our maternal and infant health crises,” Dr. Feinstein said during the Symposium. “But we can learn from other regions and countries, and create a comprehensive support network for pregnant mothers through teamwork.”

The Maternal Health Leaders Symposium featured action-oriented panels that covered a variety of maternal and infant mortality and morbidity-related topics. Following the panel discussions, attendees broke into smaller groups to develop strategies to elevate the quality of maternal and infant care. The breakouts focused on creating a team-based workforce and examining scope of practice; redesigning practices and procedures to support high-quality, coordinated maternal care; and optimizing maternal and infant health communication, education, and media campaigns.

Attendees identified promising strategies, including incorporating midwives and doulas into an expanded maternal care team; creating an accountable system to track and improve pregnancy outcomes; and assessing mothers’ pregnancy risk levels and needed physical health, mental health, and social service supports more frequently. These are cornerstones of the maternal and infant health system of Australia, which has a maternal mortality rate that is five times lower than that of the U.S. During the spring of 2018, members of the WHAMglobal team conducted a study tour of Australia’s maternal and child health system.

Other states could also learn from California, which has dramatically reduced its maternal mortality rate by implementing basic safety principles, including checklists, toolkits, and safety carts. Attendees also emphasized the need to respect mothers’ cultural and religious preferences, and to expand the use of payment models that give health systems more flexibility to redesign the birth experience for high-quality outcomes.

WHAMglobal and its partners will strive to make some of the programs, policies, and advocacy strategies showcased during the Symposium the standard of care for mothers and babies. These efforts include establishing the Maternal Coalition and Action Network (MOMsCAN), along another JHF supporting organization, the Pittsburgh Regional Health Initiative (PRHI). MOMsCAN is a perinatal quality collaborative that will build a statewide, multi-stakeholder coalition and use research, training, quality improvement, technical assistance, and policy/advocacy to lower maternal mortality rates in Pennsylvania and achieve excellent attachment and outcomes for mothers and babies.

“Collectively, we have the components needed to create a best-in-class maternal and infant health system,” Dr. Feinstein said. “Our charge, our duty, is to assemble them.”

To learn more about the Women’s Health Activist Movement Global, visit whamglobal.org and contact Women’s Health Specialist Kate Dickerson at dickerson@jhf.org.

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