Subtitles section Play video Print subtitles It was chaos as I got off the elevator. I was coming back on duty as a resident physician to cover the labor and delivery unit. And all I could see was a swarm of doctors and nurses hovering over a patient in the labor room. They were all desperately trying to save a woman's life. The patient was in shock. She had delivered a healthy baby boy a few hours before I arrived. Suddenly, she collapsed, became unresponsive, and had profuse uterine bleeding. By the time I got to the room, there were multiple doctors and nurses, and the patient was lifeless. The resuscitation team tried to bring her back to life, but despite everyone's best efforts, she died. What I remember most about that day was the father's piercing cry. It went through my heart and the heart of everyone on that floor. This was supposed to be the happiest day of his life, but instead it turned out to be the worst day. I wish I could say this tragedy was an isolated incident, but sadly, that's not the case. Every year in the United States, somewhere between 700 and 900 women die from a pregnancy-related cause. The shocking part of this story is that our maternal mortality rate is actually higher than all other high-income countries, and our rates are far worse for women of color. Our rate of maternal mortality actually increased over the last decade, while other countries reduced their rates. And the biggest paradox of all? We spend more on health care than any other country in the world. Well, around the same time in residency that this new mother lost her life, I became a mother myself. And even with all of my background and training in the field, I was taken aback by how little attention was paid to delivering high-quality maternal health care. And I thought about what that meant, not just for myself but for so many other women. Maybe it's because my dad was a civil rights attorney and my parents were socially conscious and demanded that we stand up for what we believe in. Or the fact that my parents were born in Jamaica, came to the United States and were able to realize the American Dream. Or maybe it was my residency training, where I saw firsthand how poorly so many low-income women of color were treated by our healthcare system. For whatever the reason, I felt a responsibility to stand up, not just for myself, but for all women, and especially those marginalized by our healthcare system. And I decided to focus my career on improving maternal health care. So what's killing mothers? Cardiovascular disease, hemorrhage, high blood pressure causing seizures and strokes, blood clots and infection are some of the major causes of maternal mortality in this country. But a maternal death is only the tip of the iceberg. For every death, over a hundred women suffer a severe complication related to pregnancy and childbirth, resulting in over 60,000 women every year having one of these events. These complications, called severe maternal morbidity, are on the rise in the United States, and they're life-altering. It's estimated that somewhere between 1.5 and two percent of the four million deliveries that occur every year in this country are associated with one of these events. That is five or six women every hour having a blood clot, a seizure, a stroke, receiving a blood transfusion, having end-organ damage such as kidney failure, or some other tragic event. Now, the part of this story that's frankly unforgivable is the fact that 60 percent of these deaths and severe complications are thought to be preventable. When I say 60 percent are preventable, I mean there are concrete steps and standard procedures that we could implement that could prevent these bad outcomes from occurring and save women's lives. And it doesn't require fancy new technology. We just have to apply what we know and ensure equal standards between hospitals. For example, if a pregnant woman in labor has really high blood pressure and we treat her with the right antihypertensive medication in a timely fashion, we can prevent stroke. If we accurately track blood loss during delivery, we can detect a hemorrhage sooner and save a woman's life. We could actually lower the rates of these catastrophic events tomorrow, but it requires that we value the quality of care we deliver to pregnant women before, during and after pregnancy. If we raise quality of care universally to what is supposed to be the standard, we could bring the rates of these deaths and severe complications way down. Well, there is some good news. There are some success stories. There are some places that have actually adopted these standards, and it's really making a difference. A few years ago, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists joined forces with other healthcare organizations, researchers like myself and community organizations. They wanted to implement standard care practices in hospitals and health systems throughout the country. And the vehicle they're using is a program called the Alliance for Innovation in Maternal Health, the AIM program. Their goal is to lower maternal mortality and severe maternal morbidity rates through quality and safety initiatives across the country. The group has developed a number of safety bundles that target some of the most preventable causes of a maternal death. The AIM program currently has the potential to reach over 50 percent of US births. So what's in a safety bundle? Evidence-based practices, protocols, procedures, medications, equipment and other items targeting these conditions. Let's take the example of a hemorrhage bundle. For a hemorrhage, you need a cart that has everything a doctor or nurse might need in an emergency: an IV line, an oxygen mask, medications, checklists, other equipment. Then you need something to measure blood loss: sponges and pads. And instead of just eyeballing it, the doctors and nurses collect these sponges and pads and either weigh them or use newer technology to accurately assess how much blood has been lost. The hemorrhage bundle also includes crises protocols for massive transfusions and regular trainings and drills. Now, California has been a leader in the use of these types of bundles, and that's why California saw a 21 percent reduction in near death from hemorrhage among hospitals that implemented this bundle in the first year. Yet the use of these bundles across the country is spotty or missing. Just like the fact that the use of evidence-based practices and the emphasis on safety differs from one hospital to the next, quality of care differs. And quality of care differs greatly for women of color in the United States. Black women who deliver in this country are three to four times more likely to suffer a pregnancy-related death than are white women. This statistic is true for all black women who deliver in this country, whether they were born in the United States or born in another country. Many want to think that income differences drive these disparities, but it goes beyond class. A black woman with a college education is nearly twice as likely to die as compared to a white woman with less than a high school education. And she is two to three times more likely to suffer a severe pregnancy complication with her delivery. Now, I was always taught to think that education was our salvation, but in this case, it's simply not true. This black-white disparity is the largest disparity among all population perinatal health measures, according to the CDC. And these disparities are even more pronounced in some of our cities. For example, in New York City, a black woman is eight to 12 times more likely to die from a pregnancy-related cause than is a white woman. Now, I think many of you are probably familiar with the heart-wrenching story of Dr. Shalon Irving, a CDC epidemiologist who died following childbirth. Her story was reported in ProPublica and NPR a little less than a year ago. Recently, I was at a conference and I had the privilege of hearing her mother speak. She brought the entire audience to tears. Shalon was a brilliant epidemiologist, committed to studying racial and ethnic disparities in health. She was 36 years old, this was her first baby, and she was African-American. Now, Shalon did have a complicated pregnancy, but she delivered a healthy baby girl and was discharged from the hospital. Three weeks later, she died from complications of high blood pressure. Shalon was seen four or five times by healthcare professionals in those three weeks. She was not listened to, and the severity of her condition was not recognized. Now, Shalon's story is just one of many stories about racial and ethnic disparities in health and health care in the United States, and there's a growing recognition that the social determinants of health, such as racism, poverty, education, segregated housing, contribute to these disparities. But Shalon's story highlights an additional underlying cause: quality of care. Lack of standards in postpartum care. Shalon was seen multiple times by clinicians in those three weeks, and she still died. Quality of care in the setting of childbirth is an underlying cause of racial and ethnic disparities in maternal mortality and severe maternal morbidity in the United States, and it's something we can address now. Research by our team and others has documented that, for a variety of reasons, black women tend to deliver in a specific set of hospitals, and those hospitals often have worse outcomes for both black and white women, regardless of patient risk factors. This is true overall in the United States, where about three quarters of all black women deliver in a specific set of hospitals, while less than one-fifth of white women deliver in those same hospitals. In New York City, a woman's risk of having a life-threatening complication during delivery can be six times higher in one hospital than another. Not surprisingly, black women are more likely to deliver in hospitals with worse outcomes. In fact, differences in delivery hospital explain nearly one-half of the black-white disparity. While we must address social determinants of health if we're ever going to truly have equitable health care in this country, many of these are deep-seated and they will take some time to resolve. In the meantime, we can tackle quality of care. Providing high-quality care across the care continuum means providing access to safe and reliable contraception throughout women's reproductive lives. Before pregnancy, it means providing preconception care, so we can manage chronic illness and optimize health. During pregnancy, it includes high-quality prenatal and delivery care so we can produce healthy moms and babies. And finally, after pregnancy, it includes postpartum and inter-pregnancy care so we can set moms up to have a healthy next baby and a healthy life. And it can literally spell the difference between life and death, as it did in the case of Maria, who checked into the hospital after having an elevated blood pressure during a prenatal visit. Maria was 40, and this was her second pregnancy. During Maria's first pregnancy that had happened two years earlier, she also didn't feel so well in the last few weeks of her pregnancy, and she had a few elevated blood pressures, but nobody seemed to pay attention. They just said, "Maria, don't worry, you'll be fine. This is your first pregnancy. You're a little nervous." But it did not end well for Maria last time. She seized during labor. Well, this time her team really listened. They asked smart and probing questions. Her doctor counseled her about the signs and symptoms of preeclampsia and explained that if she was not feeling well, she needed to come in and be seen. And this time Maria came in, and her doctor immediately sent her to the hospital. At the hospital, her doctor ordered urgent lab tests. They hooked her up to multiple different monitors and paid special attention to her blood pressure, the fetal heart rate tracing and gave her IV medication to prevent a seizure.