The United States health care system is in the midst of a crisis. Despite being among the richest nations in the world, it consistently ranks among the lowest for maternal health outcomes—and that’s before you begin digging into the health disparities women of color face in this nation.
Pregnancy-related complications kill Black mothers three times as often as white and Hispanic women. Not to mention, more than half the deaths of the women we lose to the maternal health crisis are preventable. When you do the math, that’s over 400 mothers we could’ve saved in 2020 alone!
But things keep worsening year over year, especially in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. Perhaps AI is the solution for this epidemic.
Advances in AI help doctors identify pregnant mothers who are at risk.
There are so many applications for AI, as this technology continues to evolve and advance. One of the most exciting applications of AI is for improving maternal health outcomes.
Some AI tools developed recently analyze patient data to identify pregnant mothers who are at risk for complications. One of the biggest red flags AI measures is the risk for premature birth, but it also recognizes other prenatal and postpartum risks for both mom and baby.
One of the biggest threats to maternal and infant health is unmet needs within the social determinants of health (SDOH). SDOH often directly influences mothers’ ability to access health care services. If a pregnant mother doesn’t have access to reliable transportation to get her to and from the doctor or lives a significant distance from one, AI can measure how that might impact health outcomes for her and her unborn child. Then, it can flag it for her doctor or health plan so they can help solve these issues before they cause larger problems.
The result? Reduced racial disparities for maternal health, fewer preterm births and NICU admissions, and shorter NICU stays. But even with these improvements and technological advancements, there are still gaps because maternal and infant health outcomes differ from state to state.
Where pregnant and postpartum mothers live influences their maternal health outcomes
March of Dimes conducted an analysis of maternal health outcomes in each state, as well as Washington, DC and Puerto Rico in 2022. They gave each state and territory a grade. Their findings were sobering, to say the least:
- Nine states and Puerto Rico received an F
- Fifteen states received a D
- Eighteen states and the District of Columbia received a C
- Seven states received a B
That leaves just one state that earned an A for maternal and infant health outcomes. It begs the question: What is happening in the states with the best outcomes versus those with the worst.
Vermont, the only state that earned an A on the March of Dimes Report Card, had a preterm birth rate of just 8.0%. New Hampshire and Oregon, aren’t far behind with 8.5% and 8.9%, respectively. The rates for infant mortality and inadequate prenatal care in these states were all significantly lower than the US average. Vermont and Oregon also have lower cesarean birth rates than the national average.
On the other hand, Mississippi has the worst maternal and infant health outcomes, with a 15% preterm birth rate. The next highest preterm birth rates belong to Louisiana at 13.5% and Alabama at 13.1%. These states also have higher rates of cesarean section and infant mortality than the national average.
With this added perspective of just how systemic the maternal health crisis is, it’s more imperative than ever to do something about it. So, Congress sprung into action.
The American Rescue Plan Act allows states to expand Medicaid coverage for postpartum moms.
When Congress passed the American Rescue Plan Act to help everyday Americans and small businesses weather the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, they included a provision that allows states to expand Medicaid coverage to moms up to a year postpartum. These expanded Medicaid services went into effect in 2022.
As of August 2023, 37 states have implemented 12 months of extended postpartum Medicaid coverage. Nine others have plans to do so, while Utah and Wisconsin have plans for limited coverage extensions.
While this expanded coverage isn’t available yet in all states, it’s a step in the right direction. Harnessing new technology, expanding and prioritizing health care for mothers, and identifying factors that increase their risk for adverse maternal and infant health outcomes will hopefully move the needle in the right direction.
Matt Eakins is a physician executive.