U research team to study high rate of African American maternal death

African American women are twice as likely to die during pregnancy. U researchers are find solutions to reverse that trend.

by Keaton Schmitt

African American women are twice as likely to die during pregnancy, regardless of wealth or class — and now, a University of Minnesota research team wants a model of prenatal care that addresses this issue.

The team partnered with the only African American-owned birth center in Minnesota to find solutions.

On average, the U.S. has high mortality rates during pregnancy, but African American women are even more likely to suffer from negative birth outcomes, said Rebecca Polston, founder and head of the Roots Community Birth Center in Minneapolis. These extend past mortality and include problems like preterm birth and low birth weights. 

“For African American women, our numbers [are] much worse. We’re four times as likely to have our babies die and twice as likely to die … as our white counterparts,” Polston said.

The racial gap also exists outside of a person’s wealth or education, she said.

“A PhD-educated African American woman is more likely to have a bad outcome than a high school dropout white woman who’s on drugs as a teen pregnant. It transcends these experiences,” Polston said.

Researchers will try to quantify techniques for best results but still haven’t formed all the details of a plan, said Rachel Hardeman, a University professor and lead on the project.

“Roots Birth Center [is] really seeing these improved outcomes,” Hardeman said. “But there hasn’t been a way to systemically document that … to start to create an evidence base for this model of care.”

Polston said a Florida midwife followed the same approach as the Roots Center does and almost eliminated pre-term births.

Hardeman said her team hopes to document the practices that give organizations like the Roots Center more positive results than traditional care, such as approaching appointments with a higher level of cultural sensitivity.

Polston said while typical prenatal appointments last five to 15 minutes, Roots appointments are often over an hour.

“I have all this expertise in … what the biometrics [of a healthy pregnancy] are, but I’m not the person in that body. I’m not the person whose baby it is,” she said. “As a provider, to assume a position of authority over that is already disenfranchising.”

Hardeman said another important goal of the project is to prove this method has better results to health care insurers, which could allow more patients access to this method of care.

The project is one of 15 funded by Interdisciplinary Research Leaders, a program the University was selected to lead last year, said IRL Director Michael Oakes.

The program gives the University about $10 million a year for at least three years, letting them fund research focused on “social determinants” of health, such as race and income.

Because University professors run the project, Oakes said IRL hired an outside team to check the proposal for possible bias. The outside team decided to fund the project because of its unique model.

“The disparities in the Twin Cities are dramatic,” he said. “It’s a major public health problem.”

A former version of this article incorrectly described the Roots Center. The Root Center is the only African-American-owned birth center in Minnesota. A sentence was also added to clarify the definition of negative birth outcomes.