“Women and Health” is a phrase that recognizes the roles of women in the health system, from informal providers of care to primary decision makers about health in their families. It also acknowledges the worldwide increase in numbers of women in medicine and as health professionals.
Unfortunately, many societies are neglecting the needs of women throughout their lives. For example, every year hundreds of thousands of women die in pregnancy and childbirth. The inequity of health care is evident by the fact that 99 percent of those deaths are in developing countries.
When women are healthier, children survive and are healthier and that means the continuance of communities. High infant mortality is a direct function of women’s health prior to conception, during pregnancy and after pregnancy. Even in developed countries, health disparities increase the problems in pregnancy and increase infant mortality.
Darline Turner-Lee is actively working to help high-risk mothers-to-be in the US.** She is a physician assistant and certified exercise specialist. Her expertise along with her personal pregnancy experience has led her to create the blog and company Mamas on Bedrest & Beyond. “I work to educate women and raise awareness to the issues of Mother/Baby friendly childbearing….I educate women to ask questions, be aware of any new changes in their health….”
Her focus is on women who have been prescribed to bed rest. For those who are unfamiliar with the bed rest prescription she explains, “The “reason” bed rest is prescribed is to prevent preterm delivery. High blood pressure, pre-eclampsia, cervical insufficiency, preterm labor and multiple gestation are some of the most common reasons, but there are many.” The bed rest prescription is more common than one would think, “Each year about 750,000 to 1milion women are prescribed bed rest during pregnancy.”
In her work with mothers who have been prescribed bed rest, Turner-Lee sees first hand, the impact of disparities on women and their children. “When working women are placed on bed rest, they risk losing their jobs, their income and family security,” she describes. “The disparity occurs between lower income women and women of higher socio-economic status,” she notes. “Lower socio-economic status women often can’t leave their jobs, so don’t “comply” [with the bed rest prescription]. As a consequence, those women, often minority women, end up with poorer outcomes.”
But as Turner-Lee points out it is not an issue of medical compliance. “Women weigh their options-provide for their “living” family or save an unborn baby. It’s a hell of a choice to have to make,” Turner-Lee realizes.
Although there is legislation that should protect women, the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) only guarantees 12 weeks of unpaid leave with job guarantee. Turner-Lee explains, “A big problem is the lack of paid maternity/sick/family leave in the US. In lower paying jobs, if you are out, you don’t get paid. After that, a woman is on her own. Between losing their income, being placed on bed rest (often in hospital), financial problems quickly rise. If mama or baby has complications, the medical expenses often render families bankrupt. It’s a huge issue.” A prescription of bed rest can, in fact, be “devastating” for lower socio-economic women and their families. For example, with a diagnosis of cervical insufficiency, women may have to go on bed rest with four and a half months left in their pregnancies. In this situation, “complying with a bed rest prescription is “the difference between having a home and being homeless and hungry. Even women in so called “white collar” jobs, if they are unable to work, they are at risk of losing their jobs, their
Of course, increasing opportunities for good health is the best way to prevent at-risk pregnancies. In the present environment, preventing the possibility of bed rest is “really good prenatal care, really early in the pregnancy,” says Turner-Lee. She cites research by Jennie Joseph, CPM, who has gotten positive results in starting prenatal care at six weeks which is two to six weeks prior to when US obstetricians typically first see mothers-to-be. “In the US, obstetricians typically don’t see mamas until between 8-12 weeks and often a problem may already be brewing,” says Turner-Lee.benefits.”
Turner-Lee points to statistics. “The US has some of the highest infant mortality rates in the world; highest amongst indus
trialized nations and even amongst some “developing” countries.” The Office of Minority Health, part of the US Department of Health and Human Services provides some other sobering facts about US infants:
- African Americans have 2.3 times the infant mortality rate as non-Hispanic whites. They are three times as likely to die as infants due to complications related to low birth weight as compared to non-Hispanic white infants.
- African Americans had twice the sudden infant death syndrome mortality rate as non-Hispanic whites, in 2008.
- African American mothers were 2.3 times more likely than non-Hispanic white mothers to begin prenatal care in the 3rd trimester, or not receive prenatal care at all.
- The infant mortality rate for African American mothers with over 13 years of education was almost three times that of Non-Hispanic White mothers in 2005.
- African American infants are 2 to 3 times more likely to die before their first birthday than any other group.
- Stillbirth is more likely in African-American women than any other ethnicity.***
Preventable conditions like hypertension and diabetes, (conditions that are more prevalent in low income women) are risk factors for problems during pregnancy. Likewise, infections that impact the fetus are also more common in African American women.
Health disparities based on income and ethnicity impact mothers-to-be, fetuses, mothers, babies, children and all adults.
Women in every society are the main caregivers of children, the elderly, the sick and the disabled. Perhaps focusing on the right to health, which according to the World Health Organization, compels governments to create conditions so that everyone can be as healthy as possible, is the best starting place. Because assuring that women are as healthy as possible is not just about their individual health, it is about the future health of their children, the health of a nation. Ensuring this human right makes sense for society. In the US, even bed rest, a way to possibly prevent infant mortality can actually financially destroy the mother, a possible surviving baby and the rest of the family. Is it possible that there is another way?
* For more information on this exciting change read this discussion by Julio Frenk, Dean of the Harvard School of Public Health
** The quotes from this piece are based on a twitter chat #hchlitss moderated by Kathleen Hoffman and RV Rikard held on October 18, 2012 with D. Turner-Lee.