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Taking charge of your maternal health

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Authored by Dr. Seun Ross, executive director of Health Equity at Independence Blue Cross

Originally published in The Philadelphia Tribune on December 12.

This past spring, the sudden death of Olympic gold medalist and world champion sprinter and long jumper Tori Bowie shocked the world. At the age of 32, Bowie passed away due to complications related to childbirth. Autopsy results found that eclampsia and respiratory distress were possible complications that contributed to her passing.

A tragedy like Bowie’s death is a harsh reminder of the risks that come with childbirth. That risk is even greater for African American people, as they are three times more likely to die due to pregnancy complications than their white counterparts, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Maternal mortality, particularly among African Americans, is a big problem in our country. There are a variety of factors that contribute to this disparity, including systemic issues like implicit bias and structural racism in medical care. Equity challenges like access to quality care, social determinants of health, and underlying conditions that disproportionately impact African Americans also contribute to the problem. At Independence Blue Cross (Independence), we are working hard to address these issues in our community and beyond. Our mission is to break down barriers, like these, that people face when trying to get access to quality care.

In 2020, Independence and The Philadelphia Tribune launched a public health campaign called Our Community. Our Health. The goal of the campaign is to help increase awareness of health conditions that disproportionately impact African Americans. Along with our campaign ambassadors, we are working together to educate the public on certain conditions and concerns – like maternal health – so Philadelphia’s African American community has the information and tools they need to improve their health and well-being.

“What is holding Philadelphia back with health equity are the same kinds of things that are impacting our schools, that are affecting violence in our communities. It’s a lack of opportunities, especially for people giving birth; it’s a lack of education, that people are not really understanding what they have to do in order to be healthy,” said Charisse Lillie, CEO of CRL Consulting and an Our Community. Our Health. campaign ambassador.

“A lot of the birthing people who have problems in pregnancy don’t have adequate prenatal care…and some of them can’t afford prenatal care. This means we need to educate them, so they know they need prenatal care,” Lillie added.

Prenatal care is critical to supporting a healthy pregnancy. It includes frequent checkups and appointments, as well as testing for things like gestational diabetes. Nutrition is also key; pregnant people and new parents should prioritize a balanced diet and hydration. An exercise routine that is physician-approved can help moms stay physically and mentally healthy. We also know that pregnancy and childbirth can be mentally and emotionally overwhelming, and a solid support system goes a long way – as they say, it takes a village!

Unfortunately, though, we know that not all people have access to these resources. That’s why maternal health equity is one of our top priorities at Independence. We work with two Philadelphia-based, minority-led maternal doula focused health companies, Cayaba Care and Cocolife.black, to help close gaps in care that contribute to disparities. Cayaba Care offers wraparound services such as emotional and mental support, help with hospital appointments, benefit navigation and more, while Cocolife.black supports Black and Brown parents through education and resources like free diapers, formula, and childcare services. We are particularly proud of these collaborations.

The Our Community. Our Health. campaign is all about educating and empowering Greater Philadelphians. It arms them with information and actionable steps related to their health, and that includes resources available through health insurance plans like Independence. By better understanding health conditions and complications that affect the African American community and how to manage them, we can all set a better path forward for ourselves. If you are pregnant or planning to become pregnant, consult with your trusted medical professional on steps to take for your health and the health of your baby.