Reflecting on the importance of healthy pregnancies

commentary_maternity-health-infographic-short-10-24-2016November was National Prematurity Awareness Month, an ideal time for families in Kentucky to think about expectant mothers’ and babies’ health, and to raise awareness about how to increase the likelihood of a safe and healthy pregnancy and delivery.

One out of 10 babies nationwide each year is born premature, according to the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention. While preterm births represent a small percentage of all births, these infants represent a large proportion of all infant deaths. In Kentucky, the infant mortality rate is 6.8 per thousand live births, putting the state at No. 34 nationwide, according to United Health Foundation’s America’s Health Rankings: The Health of Women and Children Report.

Access to appropriate prenatal, post-partum and well-child care is critically important for the health of mothers and babies. It is also important for mothers, families and physicians to recognize the dangers associated with non-medically indicated elective deliveries before 39 weeks of pregnancy and the potential impacts. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) defines weeks 39 and 40 as a full-term pregnancy, and advises against elective deliveries before 39 weeks.

Babies born before 39 weeks are more likely to have breathing problems and developmental delays, according to many published studies. A review of claims data by UnitedHealthcare showed that 48 percent of newborns admitted to the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) at select hospitals were from scheduled admissions for delivery – many before 39 weeks of gestation. After sharing these findings, some physicians and hospitals altered practice patterns and realized a 46-percent decrease in NICU admissions.

Preterm births and infant-mortality rates have declined in recent years, but we need to do more to help parents and healthcare providers recognize the risks associated with non-medically indicated preterm deliveries. About one in three U.S. births happen by cesarean section, an increase from about one in 20 births (five percent) in 1970.

Kentucky is one of more than 30 states that rates worse than the national target for cesarean deliveries, with a rate of 32 percent, according to a recent analysis by Consumer Reports. The national target for first-time mothers with low-risk deliveries is 23.9 percent or lower, as set by the Department of Health and Human Services.

Emerging technology, including myriad mobile apps, are helping pregnant women and new parents. Online resources and mobile apps enable expectant mothers to better track and manage their prenatal visits, making it easier for them to follow recommended appointments before and after delivery.

Encouraging a healthy and full-term pregnancy – and avoiding medically unnecessary C-sections –is the responsibility of parents and health professionals, and technology is helping make that possible. The last few weeks of pregnancy can be challenging, but they are important for the baby’s development and health.

 -Debra Ness is president of the National Partnership for Women & Families and Sam Ho, MD, is chief medical officer at UnitedHealthcare.