- Kenny Lin, MD, MPH
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), about 700 U.S. women die from pregnancy-related complications every year. The U.S. maternal mortality rate has increased over the past 30 years and is considerably higher than rates in other high-income countries, and 60 percent of maternal deaths were potentially preventable through medical care. Around one-third of deaths occur during pregnancy, one-third during delivery or the first week postpartum, and one-third from one week to one year postpartum. In an article in the October 15 issue of AFP, Dr. Heather Paladine and colleagues discussed an overall approach to the "fourth trimester" (the first 12 weeks postpartum) and optimal strategies for prevention and prompt detection of some of the most frequent causes of postpartum deaths identified by the CDC: hemorrhage, hypertensive disorders, thromboembolic disorders, and infections. They also reviewed other common issues with health implications for the mother and newborn, such as thyroiditis, depression, urinary incontinence, constipation, weight retention, and breastfeeding problems.
In an accompanying editorial on "What Family Physicians Can Do to Reduce Maternal Mortality," Drs. Katy Kozhimannil and Andrea Westby encouraged clinicians to look beyond clinical risks to also address social determinants of health. These factors, which include "housing instability, food insecurity, community violence, firearms access, financial insecurity, and social isolation," are likely responsible for the large and persistent racial and ethnic disparities in pregnancy-related deaths. For example, the CDC reported that black and American Indian/Alaska Native women aged 30 years and older are four to five times as likely to die as a result of pregnancy complications than white women in the same age group.
Outside of the clinic, Drs. Kozhimannil and Westby suggested several strategies for family physicians to support pregnant patients in their communities: advocating for continuous health insurance coverage for the more than half of women who have public insurance at the time of delivery; supporting increased access to postpartum doulas and community health workers; continuing to provide obstetric services at rural hospitals; and reflecting on "one's own privilege and role in perpetuating or disrupting systems of oppression" that remain obstacles to achieving health equity.
For its part, the American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP) took aim at the maternal mortality crisis by convening a Maternal Mortality Task Force in April and June to recommend evidence-based methods to decrease maternal morbidity and mortality, reduce implicit bias and disparities, and collaborate with other key stakeholders to explore solutions to the accelerating loss of rural obstetrical services. In its report to the 2019 Congress of Delegates (access restricted to AAFP members), the Task Force made a series of recommendations for improving maternal care quality and data collection; retaining family physicians and other clinicians who deliver babies in rural communities; and working with departments and residency programs in family medicine to develop sustainable maternity care workforce goals.