How technology can help tackle the black mothers health crisis

America is in the midst of a health crisis for black mothers, and it’s getting worse, not better. According to the latest data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), in 2020, black maternal deaths increased by a shocking 26% and persisted at a rate of at least three times that of white women for decades.

Let’s be clear: It’s racism, not race, that puts black women at risk. This data belongs to a body of research that shows how black women and people being born are not seen or heard as they navigate the health care system, for the simple reason that it was never taken into account. (This is exactly why Chidiebere Ibe’s medical illustrations went viral earlier this year: Black bodies weren’t treated as a standard.)

This history of exclusion, prejudice, and even direct harm has had a devastating effect on black women and families. As we have seen over the past two years of the pandemic, it has exacerbated deeply rooted mistrust in historically marginalized communities. Today, more than half of black adults say they do not trust the health care industry, the enduring legacy of intergenerational neglect.

But as much as the pandemic has reinforced inefficiencies in our system, it has also accelerated the use of digital technology to deliver better care. It’s no secret why. The devices most people carry in their pockets are becoming increasingly powerful tools for sharing information, creating community and accessing services – and they are becoming more ubiquitous, expected to outnumber humans 3 to 1 by next year. Where traditional healthcare is synonymous with complexity and cost, digital health has the potential to be defined by its intuition and accessibility, making it a powerful new competency for healthcare as a whole.

The Three Principles of Digital Health Justice

We also believe that digital technology can make healthcare more equitable and help address the black maternal health crisis – and if it is to prove worth the huge investment over the past few years, it should.

Principle #1: Make care easier

One of the basic principles of trustworthiness appears on demand. The traditional system is defined by large gaps in care – half of US counties lack obstetric services, including large urban areas. Digital technology can make healthcare more accessible, not only by providing care that is not constrained by patient location, but can more easily fit into the nature of 24/7 healthcare with faster response times. These technologies can also deploy multiple modes of providing this support, including through video visits and text messages, as well as through asynchronous channels, such as on-demand groups and community forums.

Principle #2: Make care more responsible

Recent research has revealed that black patients are twice as likely than white patients to be negatively described by health care providers in electronic medical records, adding to a large body of research showing how implicit bias affects health care outcomes. Digital technology is uniquely able to amplify the voice of patients, particularly those historically overlooked by the industry, and harness the power of society to bring much-needed transparency to the healthcare system.

Principle #3: Make care more emphatic

Digital health can set the stage for new industry standards in care excellence. We see special promise in integrating cultural competence into care delivery. Just over 20% of black adults have health care providers of the same race, compared to nearly three-quarters of white adults. Dr. Rachel Hardman and her team at the University of Minnesota conducted groundbreaking research documenting the promise of so-called “care matching,” and discovered that maternal and infant health outcomes improve when black mothers are paired with black birth attendants. Given the lack of worrisome diversity in the healthcare workforce, digital platforms can play a key role in connecting patients with providers who share their life experiences.

“Momnibus” and what’s next

We have no doubt that the private sector will continue to innovate and advance healthcare. But to truly turn the tide on the black maternal health crisis, we also need our elected officials to step up. This week is Black Mother’s Health Week in the United States, and on Capitol Hill a raft of bills known collectively as the 2021 Black Mother’s Health Act awaits a vote. Among the many components of the legislation, there is a specific push to invest in digital tools to expand access to quality care, measure and report health outcomes, and combat implicit bias, among other essential upgrades.

We’ve heard many times that it takes a village to raise a child. The state of our crisis, in fact, suggests that it takes a country to step up for the most oppressed and improve our system at the level of the patient where he really lives. We urge Congress to pass these laws, ushering in a new era of maternal health in America.

Kimberly Seals Allers is Irth, a physician and hospital review and recommendations platform for black and brown women and birthers. Dr. Neil Shah is the chief medical officer of Maven Clinic.

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