Black Women Face the Widest Disparity in Maternal Health

Pregnancy related mortality rates have declined around the world due to medical advancements. However, one of the wealthiest nations has seen an incline. The United States has the highest maternal death rate among the world’s developed nations. And for black women, the risk is even higher.

Around 700 women die each year from pregnancy-related complications, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). For black women, death in pregnancy and childbirth is three to four times more likely. According to America’s Health Rankings’ 2018 Health of Women and Children Report, the mortality rate for expectant African-American mothers is 47.2 deaths for 100,000 live births compared to 18.1 for white mothers – one of the widest disparities in women’s health.

These pregnancy-related deaths can happen during delivery or up to one year postpartum, with factors that include cardiovascular conditions, infections, hemorrhages and other pregnancy-related complications. 60 percent of the time, these deaths were determined to be preventable.

“That maternal death during pregnancy and delivery is climbing in the world’s wealthiest nation and that mortality rates are four times higher for African-American mothers is an unconscionable tragedy,” said Dr. Richard Migliori, chief medical officer, executive vice president, UnitedHealth Group. “Its reversal will require a comprehensive, systemic and holistic approach.” 

These statistics showcase systemic issues in maternal health and potential provider implicit bias, as the issue transcends socioeconomic status and education levels, Migliori said. Deaths caused by discrimination or failure to perform basic safety checks, such as checking blood loss after delivery and monitoring high blood pressure are avoidable mistakes. 

“As the largest health and well-being organization with a mission to help people live healthier lives and help the health system work better, we are committed to bringing about improvements to maternity care that address maternal and infant health outcome disparities. It’s our duty and obligation to those we have the privilege of serving,” said Michael Currie, senior vice president, chief health equity officer, UnitedHealth Group.

UnitedHealthcare recognized the need for improvement and launched a multi-pronged approach to: 

  • Identify specific causes and locations of adverse maternal and infant health outcomes 
  • Enhance UHC and Optum processes and programs to address specific causes of adverse outcomes.
  • Partner both nationally and locally to address specific causes as well as areas of concern including enhancing Quality of Care/Adverse Events Guidelines. Additional efforts will engage hospitals and providers in implementing proven safety measures in clinical settings. 

“The talent and diversified assets at UnitedHealth Group are uniquely positioned to effectively address this strategy,” Dr. Migliori said. “We do not view this as an opportunity. Rather, it is our obligation.” 

The federal government has also taken a step to address this issue with the Preventing Maternal Deaths Act– signed in December. The act aims to develop standardized procedures of reporting and to provide more transparency in maternal health by enabling states to further investigate deaths of women within a year postpartum.