Why are American moms dying—and what can we do about it?

Despite the rest of the world making improvements when it comes to women dying while pregnant or after giving birth, the United States is sadly not able to make the same claim. In data just released, 28 women out of every 100,000 experience a maternal mortality—this is an increase from 23 out of every 100,000 women in 2005. What’s going on?

Our country tends to pride itself on being on the forefront of developments in technology, pharmaceuticals, and medical treatment, so why are we falling short when it comes to caring for our country’s new mothers?

Unfortunately, this is not the first time we’ve heard this kind of news in recent months. Just this summer, a report was released that showed maternal mortality jumped a whopping 27 percent in certain states from 2000 to 2014. And in Texas, the number of women who died from pregnancy-related complications in that same time frame had actually doubled. In most cases, it is African American women who are doing the worst. How is this possible in our supposedly developed country?

Most people tend to think there are a few things to blame for our poor performance, including the obesity epidemic, the preference for women to wait until they are a bit older to give birth (and thus being more likely to have their own medical complications), and the increase in the prevalence of chronic diseases like diabetes and high blood pressure.

That’s not the whole picture, though. Some researchers have issue with the data itself. They claim it can be hard to sift through the medical records and really understand the actual cause of a pregnant woman dying, but overall most still agree that this trend is real and highly concerning.

It may be that, as a country, we have gotten very good at treating life-threatening emergencies such as postpartum hemorrhage and eclamptic seizures, but that we have not yet caught up when it comes to managing chronic conditions such as hypertension or obesity.

So what can we do to improve the care for these women, who at that moment in their life should only have to worry about getting to know their new baby, not if they are going to survive their pregnancy or childbirth? I don’t think we know all the answers, but there are a few things we can get to work on right away.

First, we need to make sure women have continuous access to good healthcare, from family planning services so they can best time their pregnancies, to preconception visits so issues like diabetes can be optimized prior to getting pregnant, to not falling through the cracks after delivery to ensure that women who had medical problems diagnosed in their pregnancy continue to receive good care.

We need to make sure all women have good access to high-quality obstetrical care. In some parts of the United States, women have to travel a hundred miles or more to see an obstetrician or deliver at a hospital. That is not safe, especially if an emergency arises.

We also need to make sure women only undergo a C-section if it’s truly needed, since we know this type of delivery is associated with much higher rates of serious complications like postpartum hemorrhage or the development of life-threatening blood clots.

We need to make sure all women are given good prenatal breastfeeding education and support after they deliver, since we know that breastfeeding drastically cuts a woman’s risk of developing heart disease, breast cancer, ovarian cancer—all of which that can cut short a woman’s life.

Finally, we need to work on closing the gap when it comes to health outcomes for women in minority groups. This is partially tied to poverty, but that doesn’t account for the whole picture.

There’s a lot to be done, and it may sound impossible…but that doesn’t matter. The lives of our country’s mothers depend on it.


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