The U.S. maternal mortality rate is rising, an especially stark fact for black women, who die three to four times as frequently as white women from pregnancy and childbirth-related complications, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. While various reports over the past year highlighted this disparity, Illinois legislators and healthcare leaders are working to combat this issue—and they’re starting with education.
Cindy San Miguel is the assistant director of the University of Illinois at Chicago Center of Excellence in Maternal and Child Health. The center trains public health students in understanding maternal healthcare disparities and crafting programs and policies to address the issue. Aside from health problems like high blood pressure and diabetes, lack of transportation or child care, low-quality insurance, poverty and education level all play a role.
“Women that are black, they’re having worse health outcomes,” she said. “There’s not a silver bullet. It’s not this one medical intervention that’s going to revolutionize childbirth or maternal health. It really is a systemic, historical monster that’s created this.”
San Miguel said addressing this problem begins with students recognizing how solutions other than improved healthcare impact maternal mortality--like guaranteed maternal leave that would prevent women from returning to work just days after giving birth —and learning to create and advocate for healthcare policy from a holistic point of view.
Education—in terms of who becomes a doctor and how they’re taught to treat pain in black women—is also a cornerstone of Congresswoman Robin Kelly’s (D-IL) proposed Mothers and Offspring Mortality & Morbidity Awareness (MOMMA) Act. Kelly represents Illinois’ second district, which encompass Chicago’s south suburbs, and introduced the act in May to address maternal mortality and the higher rate of death among women of color.
She said the first step involves building cultural competency between doctors and their patients—and that starts with getting more people of color into the medical field.
“You do better when you see someone who looks like you,” she said. “I think there’s a feeling with women in general—and then taking it to another level with women of color—that we’re just not listened to in the same way.”
EverThrive Illinois, a nonprofit organization that focuses on maternal and child health, also focuses on community education and awareness programs to improve health outcomes and address disparity in maternal health care and mortality. Like Kelly’s act, the organization works to make healthcare providers aware of biases and teach women to be their own advocates, rather than getting discouraged by a system that treats them inequitably.
“There is a reality that medical systems don’t serve women of color as equitably, and a lot of this is rooted in some historical systematic racism in the medical field,” said Brielle Treece Osting, director of the Maternal and Infant Mortality Initiative at EverThrive. “People aren’t stupid. They kind of figure out I’m not being treated the way I think most people would be treated here. We run into stories like that quite often.”
Other stories by Miriam Finder Annenberg