Doctors are asking Congress for help to improve U.S. maternal mortality rates

WASHINGTON – Doctors called on Congress on Thursday to pass legislation to address the disproportionately high maternal mortality rate across the country and to lower barriers that make it tough for people of color to enter the medical profession.

During a hearing before the U.S. Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, a five-physician panel detailed health disparities in communities of color, including higher rates of maternal mortality.

“Research consistently shows that racial and ethnic minority patients have better outcomes when they are treated by health care providers of the same racial and ethnic background,” said Dr. Yolanda Lawson, president of the National Association of Obstetricians and Gynecologists in Texas. “In short, patients can have better health outcomes if their doctors look like them.”

“Yet Black physicians remain grossly underrepresented,” Lawson added.

Louisiana Republican Senator Bill Cassidy, a committee member and physician, noted that “African-American physicians constitute only 8% of all physicians, even though they constitute 13.6% of the population.”

Cassidy stated that reducing maternal mortality was the most crucial issue to him during his time in Congress and stated that “it must be recognized that this issue disproportionately affects African Americans.”

California Democratic Senator Laphonza Butler testified that “the United States has the highest maternal mortality rate among high-income countries.”

“In recent years, thousands of women have lost their lives due to pregnancy-related causes,” Butler said. “Over the past decade, while the country’s birth rate has declined by about 20%, the maternal mortality rate has steadily increased.”

She appealed to the committee to discuss and approve the so-called Black Maternal Health Mammnibus Act, legislation introduced last year by New Jersey Democratic Sen. Cory Booker, Illinois Democratic Rep. Lauren Underwood and North Carolina Democratic Rep. Alma Adams. It currently has 31 co-sponsors in the Senate and 193 in the House of Representatives.

“This legislation is not just about life and death for Black women – its passage will improve birth outcomes for all women,” Butler said.

During Black Maternal Health Week, Pennsylvania officials are highlighting efforts to reduce death rates

HELP Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders, a Vermont independent, indicated the panel would consider the legislation in the coming months.

Sanders also said Congress should also consider increasing funding for the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children, also known as WIC; increasing class sizes at historically black colleges and universities to escalate black representation among health care professionals; and ensuring that medical schools are tuition-free to reduce the mountains of student loan debt that can act as a barrier to more people of color becoming doctors.

Thursday’s hearing coincided with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s release of recent maternal mortality data datawhich shows that 817 women died in 2022, down from 1,205 deaths the year before, but about the same as 2020’s 861 deaths.

The maternal mortality rate for black women was 49.5 deaths per 100,000 live births, compared with 19 for white women, 16.9 for Latinas and 13.2 for Asian women.

Funding for HBCU medical schools

Dr. Samuel Cook, a resident at Morehouse School of Medicine in Atlanta, Georgia, said during the hearing that medical students of color “sacrifice our physical, mental, spiritual and financial well-being in order to be the change in the field of medicine we so desperately seek.” “

“That’s why we now strongly advocate for the reintroduction of legislation that would specifically fund and protect the expansion of HBCU medical schools,” he said.

Cook told the committee that the prohibitive costs of medical school are “the greatest obstacle to recruiting Black and brown physicians into our workforce.” He currently has almost $400,000 in student loan debt.

Dr. Brian Stone, president of Jasper Urology Associates in Jasper, Alabama, told senators that there are “significant challenges” that need to be addressed in access to science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM, education for Black students and brown.

“There is plenty of data showing better health outcomes when Black patients have Black doctors. It cuts across cultures,” Stone said. “This is because when you are culturally connected, you have better communication, you share experiences and you can overcome the lack of trust that has developed over decades.”

Stone said his home state of Alabama has a population of about 4.8 million, about 25.8% of whom are black. “Yet only 7% of the healthcare workforce is black.”

Stone told the committee there is a dire need to replace retiring doctors. He also said that making a few changes, such as providing mentors earlier and reducing the financial burden, could help fill the emerging gap.

“Currently, for the last few years, about 71,000 doctors are retiring every year. We only graduate 21,000 medical students a year,” Stone said. “And if you follow the math, you can see where we’re going. We will need very artistic ideas to get out of this situation.

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