LANSING, Mich. (WLNS) — While pregnancy-related deaths were on the decline in other industrialized countries, it more than doubled in the United States between 1987 and 2016, Michigan State University recently reported.

And then, they increased again by one-third between 2018 and 2020. What’s more, though, is that Black women are three to four times more likely to die of pregnancy-related causes, and three times as likely to have severe complications, like stroke or hemorrhaging, as compared to white women.

These are some of the central concerns of a new statewide research center, Multilevel Interventions to Advance Maternal Health Equity Center (MIRACLE), led by researchers at Henry Ford Health + Michigan State University Health Sciences and Corewell Health. Backed by a nearly $19 million grant, MIRACLE is one of 10 new maternal health research centers funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

The maternal health disparities, and the high rate of maternal deaths and complications, are complex issues that will require complex approaches, researchers said. “In the 21st century, those rates should not be that high,” he said. “There is no one silver bullet. It takes a village, so to speak, to improve health care and eliminate these racial disparities. It involves everybody,” said Cristian Meghea, associate professor in MSU’s College of Human Medicine.

The new research center will utilize three projects, addressing disparity-related issues:

  • Project 1 uses community health workers, visiting nurses and social workers to coordinate care of pregnant and postpartum Black and Hispanic women with periodic home visits.
  • Project 2 uses a digital application developed by Steven Ondersma, MSU professor of public health. Using the app, Black and rural pregnant women will self-screen for warning signs and chat live with community health workers who can connect them with services.
  • Project 3 examines practices for improving maternal care equity in 12 Michigan counties. Because 83% of deaths happen during pregnancy or the postpartum period (rather than around delivery), the project focuses on the handoff from the hospital to community care.

Jennifer Johnson, professor of public health at MSU and one of the center’s principal investigators, said the disparities in maternal health have to do with structural racism, including policies that leave Black women in impoverished neighborhoods without easy access to transportation and health care. Black women, she said, are also less likely to be taken seriously when they report pain or other symptoms.

“We’re not focusing so much on theory,” said Johnson. “We’re in the trenches, trying to bring real-world changes to improve the health of pregnant and postpartum people.”

Though the research at the center will focus on Michigan, it can be widely extrapolated. “Our overall purpose is to reduce maternal mortality and morbidity in Michigan and to provide models that can be used nationally,” Johnson said.