How Telemedicine Can Help Close the Maternal Health Gap

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A number of pregnancy-related services, including lactation support, at-home monitoring and mental healthcare, can be provided virtually.

In 2012, there were fewer than 1,400 maternal-fetal medicine specialists in the United States, and 98% resided in metropolitan areas.

This left pregnant patients in rural areas without the ability to access care, especially if travel was not an option. 

Today, telehealth can be used to fill that gap – but providers still may face challenges in ensuring patients get the services they need.

As Dr. Craig Sable, associate division chief of cardiology at Children’s National Hospital in Washington, D.C., noted during a virtual ATA2020 session Tuesday, the COVID-19 pandemic has only clarified the potential usefulness of telehealth for expectant parents.

“We can connect primary obstetricians with maternal-fetal medicine experts, and we know this will improve outcomes,” he said. “The only way to improve access is to use telemedicine.”

Additionally, when those maternal-fetal medicine experts identify problems, they can contact specialists.

The importance of access is magnified for underserved populations, Sable pointed out. He drew special attention to the maternal mortality and morbidity crisis among Black women, who are three times as likely to die in childbirth as white women. 

That disparity is even more severe among Black women with a college degree – who are five times as likely to die in childbirth as their white counterparts – and for those over the age of 30. 

Sable also noted that maternal mortality and morbidity rates are higher in rural areas than in urban ones.

Though a number of steps can be taken to address that crisis, including working to eradicate systemic racism throughout the healthcare system, Sable indicated telehealth as one useful tool.

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