What Does Virtual Care Mean for the Future of Maternal Health?

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Telemedicine helps decrease barriers to care (goodbye cumbersome middle-of-the-day appointments), but experts worry it may worsen an already deep gash across socioeconomic and race lines.

Take one look at some of the maternal health data in this country and it’s hard to argue with the fact that the U.S. is not just in the midst of a pandemic, but also a maternal health crisis.

Here’s a grim glimpse: About 700 women die every year in the United States due to pregnancy or delivery complications (with 60,000 “near-miss” deaths every year), the number of reported pregnancy-related deaths has increased from 7.2 deaths for every 100,000 births in 1987 to 16.9 deaths for every 100,000 births in 2016 in this country, and wide racial disparities exist across the board with Black, American Indian, and Alaska Native women being two to three times more likely to die from pregnancy-related causes than white women.

“Before the pandemic, with all of the different touchpoints across the healthcare system and different clinics — from diagnosis and referral to treatment — we lose women,” says Karen Tabb Dina, Ph.D., an associate professor in social work at the University of Illinois who studies health disparities in women’s health.

Now, with The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) recommending providers maximize the use of telehealth for prenatal care — and women being seen in-person fewer times — some experts worry more women will get lost in the shuffle.

To be fair, there’s potential for virtual prenatal care to fill some of the gaps that currently exist in prenatal and postpartum care (a virtual appointment is after all, by many standards, easier to make it to than an in-real-life one). But risk of the opposite — worsening an already deep gash across socioeconomic and race lines and a lack of treatment for an incredibly in-need population — is there, too.

It’s too soon to definitively say what postpartum care means for soon-to-be and new moms who are buying blood pressure cuffs and being referred to telepsychiatry. But as rates of perinatal mood and anxiety disorders (PMADs) rise amidst a pandemic, here’s a more nuanced look at the effect virtual care could have on moms.

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