Maternal health continues to be an issue for New Jersey, communities of color

Each day across the US, two women die from pregnancy-related causes. It’s a fact that disproportionately affects communities of color. According to the CDC, New Jersey now ranks 45th in the country for our high maternal death rate.

“We are the only developed nation that’s actually had a rise in maternal mortality every year, on average, since 1990,” said Charles Lockwood, dean of the Morsani College of Medicine at the University of South Florida Health.

At a conference in Newark, health care workers, policy makers and state leaders are gathering. Proposing prevention strategies and improvements to obstetric care.

“Comorbidities are one of the main factors affecting maternal/child health. The rising trends in obesity, hypertensive disorders, comorbidity of diabetes and the vicious cycle just continues,” said Andrew Rubenstein, section chief obstetrics of the Hackensack Meridian Health University Medical Center.

The most concerning trend: black mothers die at more than three and a half times the rate of white women. Specialists in the field say physicians need to shift their cultural mindset and rethink how they practice medicine and focus on quality of care.

Elizabeth Howell, vice chair of research for Mount Sinai Health System and director of the Women’s Health Research Institute, spoke to this issue.

“Are we getting women anti-hypertensive medication in a timely fashion? Do we have systems in place to have parts on the floor for an emergency with all the equipment we need to save a woman’s life? These are some basic things,” Howell said.

“We need to recognize where your patient is coming from in terms of life experience, who they’re going to go home to, and also in terms of their understanding of discharge instructions, these are preventable deaths,” said Ilise Zimmerman, president and CEO of the Partnership for Maternal and Child Health of Northern NJ.

“I’ve actually lectured the black caucus, the women in particular and Assemblywoman Shavonda Sumter, my first vice chair, to come together and make this a priority issue for us and to get in front of it,” said State Senator Ron Rice. “Because you can’t talk about infant mortality without having the black community very much involved.”

Another growing source of infant mortality is mental health. 8 percent of pregnant women are diagnosed with depression, and opioid abuse now accounts for about 10% of white maternal deaths.

The March of Dimes also released a report card Thursday on premature births. New Jersey gets a “C.” With 9.5 percent of babies born preterm. That number has slowly dropped over the years, but it’s far from where health experts want to be. What’s worse though, the rate among black women is 47 percent higher than all other women in the state. Take a look at the chart and you’ll see, no one is untouched.

“The reality is mothers are sicker today than they were 28 years ago, part of that is the obesity epidemic part, and that’s a huge part of it. Part of it is that mothers have aged, the combination of obesity and associated diseases with that, high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes, and increasing age makes this population much more at risk,” Lockwood said.

The rates are alarming. But experts at this symposium say we’re finally on the road to giving this public health crisis the attention it deserves.