By Kristen Mitchell
A pair of George Washington University School of Nursing researchers were recently awarded a grant to study maternal mortality, a public health crisis with stark racial disparities, in Washington, D.C. The project will focus on the fathers' role and involvement in pregnancy and postpartum care, and their impact on prenatal care, maternal and infant health.
Professor Y. Tony Yang and assistant professor Sherrie Wallington, both affiliated with GW Nursing’s community of policy, populations and systems department, were awarded $359,000 for this research through the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s Interdisciplinary Research Leaders program. The program supports and expands action-oriented and community-engaged research to create healthier communities.
Black women are nearly four times more likely than white women to die of causes related to pregnancy or childbirth, regardless of their socioeconomic status, the researchers said. These disparities are particularly stark in Washington, D.C., where the maternal mortality rate is twice the national average—disproportionately affecting Black women in Ward 7 and Ward 8, Dr. Wallington said.
“Here we are in the nation's capital, and it's really embarrassing that we have one of the highest incidences of maternal mortality. It is a public health crisis,” Dr. Wallington said. “I think we’ve done a great job over the years describing disparities, but where we have not done such a good job is, where are the actionable solutions? By partnering with the community and doing work with the community, we can get to the root causes of some of those issues.”
There has been a growing awareness of racial disparities in maternal mortality over the past few years. Tennis star Serena Williams spoke openly about the life-threatening complications she experienced giving birth to her daughter in 2017. Ms. Williams said hospital employees did not respond quickly enough when she voiced concerns that she was short of breath and potentially experiencing a pulmonary embolism, a blockage to an artery in the lungs caused by blood clots. Her story has been held up as an example of how Black women are often dismissed and ignored by medical professionals.
Dr. Wallington and Dr. Yang have partnered on this research with the Alliance of Concerned Men, Inc., a local nonprofit that seeks to prevent youth violence and build safer communities in the D.C. area. Clayton Rosenberg, the organization’s chief of staff, said the group plans to bring together important stakeholders in the community to discuss fathers’ perceptions of their role in reducing maternal mortality and the system-level factors that promote or impede fathers’ roles in being part of the solution.
“We have that consistent base where we meet with these individuals every single day. We’ll be able to really develop a sense of recommendations to submit in order to help fathers be in the lives of their family even more,” Mr. Rosenberg said. “I think that all of us together are going to make for a really diverse team, and we’ll be able to do some really good things for the community.”
The research group plans to hold focus groups with fathers and develop a survey to assess their knowledge, attitudes, and barriers on issues connected to maternal health and father involvement. The team hopes to use this research to develop Father Involvement Training (FIT), an educational intervention to expand current knowledge related to fathers’ roles in reducing maternal mortality and develop recommendations at the individual, community and system levels.
They also want to understand fathers’ experiences with and perceptions of D.C.’s newly adopted paid family leave program. Fathers taking time off work after birth can reduce maternal mortality, but it can be stigmatized, Dr. Wallington said. Understanding why men may choose or not choose to take advantage of the program can inform future outreach.
“We have a unique opportunity to look at this new law, this new policy, which has a significant impact on maternal and child health,” said Dr. Yang, executive director of the Center for Health Policy and Media Engagement.
Researchers plan to use this study to design innovative and sustainable father-focused interventions, community-engaged activities, dissemination strategies and inform policy. An important aspect of this study is to return back to the community to share the study findings. The study team plans to develop creative educational materials like fact sheets and infographics that can be easily shared in the community, and to present their work in town hall meetings and presentations with the D.C. Department of Health, maternal health grassroot groups, key stakeholders and other interested groups.