May 20, 2024 - News

Ascension rolls out maternal health initiative

Illustration of a stork carrying a red cross

Illustration: Natalie Peeples/Axios

Some Austin patients who are at risk for pregnancy complications will be part of a new Ascension program that aims to improve maternal health.

Why it matters: Texas has long struggled with high maternal mortality and morbidity rates — now under a magnifying glass with the state's near-total abortion ban.

  • Black Texans see disproportionately higher severe maternal morbidity and mortality rates — roughly double the rate of their white counterparts and four times higher than Hispanic Texans — per a state report using 2019 data.

Maternal mortality is defined as a death that takes place during birth or up to a year later, while maternal morbidity is a health condition attributed to or aggravated by pregnancy and childbirth.

Driving the news: Ascension's Maternal Health Social System Initiative will embed health care workers with patients to respond to nonclinical needs to improve health outcomes for patients and their babies.

  • Ascension officials tell Axios they will roll out the program in Austin and Nashville this summer after successfully piloting the program in Milwaukee; Pensacola, Fla.; and Detroit.

What they're saying: Richard Fogel, executive vice president and chief clinical officer of Ascension, said the hospital group has already seen results in other cities, including a decrease in missed appointments and an increase in the percentage of pregnancies reaching term and babies being born at an ideal weight.

How it works: A dedicated "maternal health navigator" will support the patient for nine to 12 months through prenatal-specific health education, postpartum care, breastfeeding support, mental health counseling and even healthy meals.

  • Maternal health navigators will initially meet in person at Ascension's Davis Lane Clinic with the patient to perform an assessment and identify any barriers to the patient receiving prenatal care.
  • Onsite visits continue monthly until 28 weeks and then every two weeks until 36 weeks, when visits become weekly until delivery.
  • The navigator also will call the patient at least every other week throughout the pregnancy and six months postpartum to monitor the patient's needs.
  • Patients in the program also will be eligible to receive two boxes of fresh fruits and vegetables per month.

Zoom in: The World Health Organization recommends a minimum of eight prenatal visits to reduce complications, and Ascension officials say the health navigators can assist patients in overcoming the barriers they may face to attend the appointments like transportation or a lack of child care.

  • Austin patients who are on or eligible for Medicaid, between 12-17 weeks pregnant and willing to receive care at the Davis Lane Clinic are eligible for the program.

Yes, but: Ascension has faced criticism from its unionized nurses, who say the hospital chain has cut labor and delivery units — many located disproportionately in low-income neighborhoods with higher mortality rates.

  • Ascension called the report from the union, National Nurses United, an "inaccurate and misleading representation of the clinical decisions Ascension has made over the last several years."

What's next: The Austin program will roll out in July.

  • Plus, the health care chain's $320 million women's tower is expected to open in 2025. Ascension officials say the tower will increase patient capacity for roughly 7,500 deliveries per year when it opens, with a maximum capacity for up to 9,200 deliveries per year.
  • The facility will also house C-section suites and private neonatal intensive care unit rooms, create a dedicated OB-GYN emergency department and expand antepartum space.

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