Pregnancy-Related Deaths Are Up. Could Broadband Help?

Maternal deaths have recently increased in the United States as rates fall in other developed countries. A new bill suggests broadband, or the lack thereof, could be a critical factor for the health of pregnant mothers.

by / February 26, 2020
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Could improved broadband availability reduce the growing number of pregnant women who die in the United States? 

With the introduction of a bill titled Data Mapping to Save Moms’ Lives Act in both the Senate and House of Representatives last month, some legislators believe high-speed Internet could make a difference for pregnant mothers. 

The bill would require information on maternal health to be included in the Federal Communications Commission’s Mapping Broadband Health in America initiative, which currently presents mapped correlations between broadband access and physician shortages, diabetes and obesity. 

This legislation would ideally bring more context to some troubling facts on maternal deaths in the United States, where, according to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, upwards of 700 women die annually “as a result of pregnancy or delivery complications.” Moreover, a 2017 report by NPR and ProPublica indicates that more U.S. women perish for such reasons compared to women in every other developed country, and the number of fatalities has increased in the U.S. over the last several years. 

Illinois Rep. Robin Kelly, who helped bring the House bill to the table, said she can’t currently confirm whether broadband is “directly connected” to any of these deaths. However, she pointed out that both telehealth and websites oriented toward care could theoretically save lives. 

“For moms … that’s always a good thing to have as much information and as much access as possible,” Kelly said. 

Kelly added that the bill would lead to more data, which is essential for informing policy. “Maternal mortality cuts across socioeconomic levels, but there are still a lot of poor women that die,” she said. “We’re hoping that this can be another tool that we can use to decrease those deaths.”

But has the FCC’s Mapping Broadband Health in America program led to any decisions, partnerships or investments with its current offerings? For the answer, Government Technology reached out to the FCC Connect2Health Task Force, which oversees the initiative. 

Ben Bartolome, special counsel for the task force, said in an email that the initiative “led to an unprecedented collaboration between the FCC and the National Cancer Institute (NCI) to tackle broadband health gaps in the Appalachian region of Eastern Kentucky.” That collaboration brought about a project called Linking & Amplifying User-Centered Networks through Connected Health, also known as L.A.U.N.C.H., which involves an ongoing pilot in Kentucky.

“In addition, we’re also aware that other federal agencies and academic research institutions have used and relied on the MBHA platform with respect to their policy/research initiatives and programs, and with some suggesting integration of other data sets,” Bartolome said.

Yet even if a lack of broadband access can be linked to maternal deaths in particular areas, saving lives will likely involve much more work and coordination. Stacey Millett, project director for the Health Impact Project at Pew Charitable Trusts, said the many stories she has heard from states about maternal health do point to a need for more broadband infrastructure. But there are numerous factors, from hospital closures to transportation to housing, that can impact the likelihood of a pregnant woman’s survival. 

“We do need to understand that 50 percent of health outcomes — and this is pretty well researched and documented — are driven by factors beyond access to care and behavior,” Millett said. “We’re talking about employment, education, income, community, family safety, the physical environment, housing, transportation … And I think that that’s why we consistently talk about having those sectors at the table.”

Millett also emphasized that maternal death affects certain groups more than others. In a recent article, she mentioned the statistic that black women are three to four times more likely than white women to die from pregnancy complications. Both Millett and Kelly, whose legislative district is more urban and suburban, cited the fact that preventable maternal deaths occur in cities as well as rural communities. Such evidence suggests that a multifaceted approach to the problem will yield the most success. 

“Whether it’s broadband or transportation and education and employment … we’re hoping that policymakers, decisionmakers, [and] community members understand the links,” Millett said. 

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Jed Pressgrove Staff Writer

Jed Pressgrove has been a writer and editor for about 15 years. He received a bachelor’s degree in journalism and a master’s degree in sociology from Mississippi State University.

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