Prioritizing the Need for Maternal Health Services to Promote Social Equality

By: Rhonda Foxx, Head of Social Equity Policies & Engagement, Intel

Over the last year, Intel has worked to advance equity and equality by promoting an environment of inclusion at Intel and within our communities. We launched Equity@Intel to provide a platform to discuss how our technologies and public policies can work together to addresses society’s most pressing issues.

Mario Romao
Kichelle Webster

I invite you to read my conversation with Kichelle Webster, Legislative Assistant for Congresswoman Alma S. Adams (Co-Chair of the Black Maternal Health Caucus), and Mario Romao, Intel’s Global Lead of Artificial Intelligence for Health and Life Sciences. As we honor Black Maternal Health Week, Kichelle and Mario illustrate how technology and innovation can address the maternal health crisis, specifically in communities of color.

Intel thanks the Black Maternal Health Caucus, Vice President Harris, Director Susan Rice, and Representatives Alma S. Adams Ph.D. and Lauren Underwood for their continued leadership and advocacy on this important issue.

Rhonda Foxx: How pervasive is the maternal health crisis in America?
Kichelle Webster: Over the last two decades, the United States has held the horrible distinction of having the worst maternal health outcomes among wealthy, developed nations. And, because of structural and systemic racism within healthcare and the public policy landscape, the crisis is even more severe for Black women.

According to the American Journal of Managed Care (AJMC), Black women are 3-4 times more likely to die of pregnancy-related complications compared to white women. Additionally, Black women experience more maternal health complications and are more likely to experience complications throughout the course of their pregnancies than white women. Unfortunately, these disparities even persist across income, socioeconomic, and education levels.

RF: What is Congress doing to address the Black maternal crisis?
KW: Over the last few years, Congress has begun to pay attention to this urgent issue. In 2018, Rep. Adams and then-Senator Kamala Harris introduced the first-ever Black Maternal Health Week Resolution to deepen the national consciousness around this issue. A year later, Representatives Adams and Underwood launched the Black Maternal Health Caucus, which has worked with stakeholders to craft the most comprehensive package of policies that will address every facet of this crisis. The Black Maternal Health Momnibus Act – known as the Momnibus – began as nine bills and has now grown to 12, with new measures addressing the COVID-19 pandemic and the impacts of climate change on moms and babies.

The Caucus now boasts over 115 bipartisan Members of Congress. As more members learn about the existing maternal health disparities, they join commonsense, bipartisan coalition.

RF: How can organizations, particularly in the tech sector, best support solutions to this issue?
KW: We all have a role to play in effecting change and solving this crisis, particularly the tech sector which has traditionally been at the forefront of tackling some of humanity’s biggest issues. The pandemic has not only exacerbated disparities, but it has also shined a bright light on existing inequality. This realization has made clear the role that technology can and must play in addressing inequity.

That is why we hope that technology leaders will support the Momnibus, and specifically the policies included in the Tech to Save Moms Act, led by Representative Eddie Bernice Johnson and Senator Menendez. The bill requires the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Innovation to consider models that improve the integration of telehealth services in maternal health care. It also funds a grant program to promote digital tools that target racial and ethnic health disparities and invest in developing tech-enabled training models for providers in underserved areas. Additionally, the bill also calls for a study into the use of new technologies, like artificial intelligence, in maternal health care and to prevent racial biases from being built into maternal care innovations.

RF: Why should disparities in maternal health matter to organizations and how can governments and industry best work together to tackle this issue?

Mario Romao: We believe that organizations have the responsibility to contribute to a more equitable society. The problem of maternal health should concern us all. In the 21st century we would expect maternal health not to be an issue anymore, surely not in wealthy nations. We all have mothers within our workforce. And, by 2050 the majority of the U.S. workforce alone will be people of color. We will never achieve our goal of full inclusion at Intel or within our communities if there is a maternal health crisis disproportionately impacting communities of color.

Intel understands that addressing our most pressing social issues, like maternal health, demands a new level of public-private partnership that creates a policy framework that enables technologies to be deployed in a way that addresses these challenges. At Intel, we say that our purpose is to create world changing technology that enriches the lives of every person on Earth. This is an ambitious goal, and one we want to bring forward to help improve maternal health outcomes in underserved areas and populations in America.

RF: How can technology be deployed in a way that helps mothers and their babies?
MR: We are entering a different world where public health, clinical care and personal wellness are evolving to embrace digital technologies. For maternal health, this means expanded reach for prenatal and postpartum care. Approaches may include virtual visits by videoconference, access to specialists, such as obstetricians and gynecologists, and the use of remote monitoring technologies where clinically required. Mental health care can also be provided at a distance to enable consultations for postpartum depression follow-up. It is not about replacing the physician – patient relationship by technology, but rather augmenting the care to underserved populations which helps reduce racial healthcare disparities.

RF: There are a lot of discussions around telemedicine. In your opinion, what is the biggest hurdle in the push to make tele-medicine accessible for all?

MR: Whilst the technology is mature, the adoption of telehealth and remote patient monitoring has been slow due to outdated policies. Covid-19 accelerated the acceptance and use of distance care procedures. Yet, hurdles for widespread use persist. Reimbursement is an important lever, and more needs to be done at state (Medicaid pays for about 50% of births) and federal levels. For instance, all states reimburse some level of videoconference, but the number gets smaller for remote patient monitoring (22 states). Cross state licensure for practitioners and financial support to households for broadband connectivity are two other areas that will require long term attention from policymakers.