Bringing awareness and change for Black maternal health

Approximately a 4-minute read

Key takeaways:

  • Black birthing people have 3-5 times higher rates of maternal mortality.
  • To help counteract some of the factors contributing to higher mortality, Von Voigtlander Women’s Hospital and the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology put a renewed focus on this year’s Black Maternal Health Week.
  • The week included a social media campaign, a department research day, a special grand rounds presentation and two documentary viewings, one for Michigan Medicine and one in the community.

“There is a common misconception that Black birthing people are ‘different’ than other patients,” said Courtney Townsel, M.D., M.Sc., associate chair of diversity, equity and inclusion in the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology and assistant professor in the Division of Maternal Fetal Medicine.

Townsel said that many people think Black women die at higher rates from pregnancy and childbirth complications because they have more medical complications to begin with when entering pregnancy, and that Black birthing people have poor health literacy.

“The truth is that socioeconomic status and education are not protective for Black birthing people,” Townsel said. “Additionally, while some conditions like high blood pressure are seen at slightly higher rates in Black individuals these differences in rates of underlying disease do not account for the 3-5 times higher rate of maternal mortality.”

Townsel gives an example: postpartum hemorrhage. “Black women have lower rates of postpartum hemorrhage than white women but are three times more likely to die from a postpartum hemorrhage than their white counterparts. This is systemic racism and systemic unconscious, and in some cases, conscious bias at work.”

These misconceptions are why Townsel and her colleagues in Von Voigtlander Women’s Hospital and the Department of OBGYN put a renewed focus on this year’s Black Maternal Health Week.

Raising awareness during Black Maternal Health Week

Townsel said that while Michigan Medicine has recognized Black Maternal Health Week in the past, this was the first year with weeklong programming focused on bringing awareness and change.

“I took on the role of associate chair for diversity, equity and inclusion for the Department of OBGYN in July 2022,” she said. “My focus in this role has been to raise awareness about issues of equity in the reproductive health care space.

“Through my lens as a Black woman, a Black mother and as someone who has experienced bias in my pregnancies, I felt compelled to ensure we highlighted these maternal mortality disparities. We convened a Black Maternal Health Committee in December 2022 and that group supported planning the various events.”

The planning committee is comprised of Townsel, Christina Majszak, Lindsay Admon, Hanikka Muna, Whitney Warfield-Harmon, Bryan Aaron, Emily Rivkin, Julia Richards, Jacque Cook and LeVette Crout.

The committee – with the support of department chair Dee Fenner, M.D. – put together a week of wide-ranging events including a social media campaign, a department research day that focused on the importance of diverse research teams and recruitment that includes historically underrepresented populations, a special-focus grand rounds presentation and two documentary viewings, one for Michigan Medicine and one in the community.

To wrap-up the celebration, team members were asked to stop by Labor and Delivery on Friday, April 14 to show support for Black birthing people through a t-shirt and pin campaign.

“Each person received a shirt or pin that said, ‘Black Maternal Health Matters’ and received the Black Birthing Bill of Rights,” Townsel said. “This is a patient-driven and patient-led proclamation to help guide us in providing the highest level of care to Black birthing people and all birthing individuals on our unit.”

Future change

Townsel said this is just the beginning for changing how we care for Black maternal health patients.

“We are continuing to look at our tri-partite mission and explore how we make systemic ongoing change,” she said.

“In clinical care we are reviewing our maternal outcomes with an equity lens to ensure we are providing the same level of care for all patients. In education, we are finalizing our trainee diversity, equity and inclusion curriculum that exposes residents and fellows to clinical opportunities to care for diverse populations and teaches them how to respectfully embark on equity-related research. Through our research mission we are inspecting how we engage and include diverse community members.”

Townsel noted that change can also be made with the help of younger generations.

“We have ongoing mentorship programming for students in middle school, high school, college and medical school about careers in medicine, particularly in women’s health, to increase the number of underrepresented clinicians, including physicians,” she said.

Learn even more about the work behind Black Maternal Health Week – and the recently-completed Healthcare Equity Month – on a recent episode of The Wrap employee podcast.