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Penn Medicine's new March of Dimes Research Center aims to lower barriers of maternal healthcare and minimize disparities based on race. Credit: Mehak Dhaliwal

Penn Medicine announced the launch of a new center for advancing maternal health equity. 

The March of Dimes Research Center aims to address racial disparities in maternal health. For years, Penn has taken steps to lower barriers to healthcare and minimize disparities based on race. The University has contributed to the academic literature and initiatives to promote equity in healthcare through clinical research and innovative technology. A national partnership with March of Dimes will seek more solution-based initiatives using the research conducted by universities like Penn. 

The Center was launched in January under the leadership of Elizabeth Howell, the current chair of the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology in the Perelman School of Medicine.

“We are focused on action-oriented solutions and new models of care that will narrow gaps in maternal health care,” Howell said.

Due to a variety of socioeconomic factors, many people are unable to seek or afford the highest quality of care. Catherine Buren, a Nursing and Wharton junior in the Nursing and Healthcare Management dual degree program, said that she was taught in her courses about the shift toward value-based care which works to alleviate disparities in health care. 

“The value-based care model is meant to use measurable outcomes, like reduced number of patients who develop diabetes, to incentivize providers to focus on quality of care for all patients,” Buren said. “I think that a lot of the times we see poor maternal health outcomes with minority patients, it's not due to racial and genetic factors, but due to socioeconomic status. It’s a fact that white patients perform better than other groups.” 

The new March of Dimes Center will focus on the value-based care model and is funding two projects that Penn will pursue.

The first project is focused on postpartum care in the neonatal intensive care unit. At the Children’s Hospital of Pennsylvania, under the leadership of Heather Burris, clinicians will evaluate whether delivering postpartum care in the NICU could improve results for patients at risk of higher mortality. 

“Greater than 50% of maternal deaths occur postpartum, [which] may be due to the fact that rates of capture [for follow up] are very low after delivery,” Howell said. “By obtaining mothers’ diabetes status and getting appropriate screening done right after delivery then and there, we can capture vulnerable individuals early on.”  

The second project, under the leadership of Sindhu Srinivas and Adi Hirshberg, focuses on patient engagement and communication in the delivery room. The primary focus is on integrating doulas, people who provide guidance and support during labor, into the care delivery model. 

“By having a trained support person in the doula role, interventions during delivery are reduced … For example, there is a lesser likelihood of a Caesarian,” Howell said. 

Howell cited how Philadelphia is among the top 10 poorest urban cities in the United States and has a maternal morbidity rate higher than the national rate, with 80% of deaths among those who identified as Black, Indigenous, and people of color. 

“I think having this center where … the focus is on minority patients in low-income communities is going to be super big for bridging the gap,” Buren said.