Maternal Health Discussed During U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Visit

Photo of listening session on Jan. 27 in Raleigh which included public health leadership from DHHS and across the state.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services held a listening session on Jan. 27 in Raleigh which included public health leadership from DHHS and across the state.

Jan. 29, 2020 – North Carolina’s efforts to address and improve maternal health across the state were the focus of a listening session held by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services on Jan. 27 in Raleigh.

NC Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Mandy Cohen welcomed federal, state and local health leaders and noted the progress North Carolina has made recently, with the lowest infant mortality rate in recorded history. However, she also recognized disparities need to be addressed going forward to continue that progress.

Gathered to discuss those pressing issues facing maternal health in the state and nation were representatives from NCDHHS, federal HHS’ Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA), Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), Duke University School of Medicine, Granville-Vance District Health Department, UNC School of Medicine, MomsRising and Wake County Human Services.

Dr. Elizabeth Cuervo Tilson, State Health Director and NCDHHS’ Chief Medical Officer, and Belinda Pettiford, Head of the Women’s Health Branch for NCDHHS’ Division of Public Health, were panelists from the Department.

The panel touched on topics such as affordable access to health care, equity among white and African American mothers, emotional health and mental wellbeing, data transparency, connecting the rural-urban gap and social determinants of health.

While panelists dove into the many ways patients, practitioners and policymakers can address maternal health issues, they also noted the disparity that continues to exist in North Carolina of higher infant mortality rates among African American babies.  While the African American infant mortality rate is at an all-time low, decreasing by 9% since 2016 to 12.2 in 2018, it is still more than twice the white infant mortality rate at 5.0 in 2018.

Cohen and Tilson both stressed the importance of “whole person health” and what it means to be a healthy human or, in this case, a healthy mother.

“A person is a person all the time but intersects with the health care system probably about 2% of their life,” Tilson said. “Thinking about this in a holistic fashion, some of those drivers are quality of care, equity of that care, the quality and access of prenatal care as well as the health of the woman before she gives birth because healthy women are healthy mothers.”

Tilson said non-medical determinants of health play a role in the conversation too. These are factors like food security, housing and transportation.

Pettiford said maternal health is a continuous effort and doesn’t end when the baby is born, just as maternal deaths don’t only take place before or during birth.

“Within all these efforts, we want to remind pediatricians that when mom brings baby in for care, don’t forget to ask mom about herself,” Pettiford said.