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This program could help lower maternal mortality rates for Black women in California

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Black women in the U.S. are three times more likely to die from pregnancy-related causes than white women. That racial disparity is true even in California, which has a maternal mortality rate lower than the national average. Now a program in Oakland is trying to change those outcomes and possibly provide a model for other parts of the state. Daisy Nguyen from member station KQED reports.

DAISY NGUYEN, BYLINE: In East Oakland, there's an old shopping mall converted into a community wellness center and, down one corridor, a room filled with music and laughter.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED MUSICAL ARTIST: (Singing, inaudible).

NGUYEN: Today half a dozen Black women in their third trimester are here for prenatal checkups. They take turns going behind a wall divider, where a midwife measures their blood pressure and their baby's heartbeat.

(SOUNDBITE OF HEART BEATING)

NGUYEN: And then they have two hours with Black midwives and doulas where they can ask questions to help them make informed decisions about their medical care. Jyesha Wren is a midwife and program director of BElovedBIRTH Black Centering. She says prenatal visits typically last 15 minutes - not long enough for patients to get all the information they need.

JYESHA WREN: There's no time for them to be taking charge of their health care in that way and knowing what's going on with their bodies and making their decisions and having them respected.

NGUYEN: The extra time is possible because they're in a group. Over the past three years, BElovedBIRTH has served more than 200 Black women in groups like this who qualify for Medi-Cal, the state's insurance program for low-income patients. A combination of public funds and private grants pay for things like childbirth education, tools to help them check their vital signs at home and free produce and postpartum meals delivered to their door.

KIM HARLEY: Addressing this issue of health equity is really important.

NGUYEN: Kim Harley researches maternal health at UC Berkeley's School of Public Health. She says Black pregnant people are at a higher risk of hypertension, pre-eclampsia and other life-threatening conditions.

HARLEY: There are many sort of factors that may be driving this, but the primary factor behind all of that is racism in all of its forms.

NGUYEN: Harley says that the constant stress of experiencing racism can lead to things like hypertension, and discrimination can also translate to subpar maternity care. A recent CDC survey found that 1 in 3 women of color reported being mistreated while receiving that care. Common complaints included requests for help being ignored and unwanted treatment being forced on them. Jyesha Wren says BElovedBIRTH is tackling racial bias in health care by pairing Black patients with a health care team that looks like them.

WREN: The research is now showing so strongly a correlation between improved care experiences as well as health outcomes and survival, even when it comes to things like infant mortality, when folks are cared for by people really of their community.

NGUYEN: For program participant Taj'ae Harris, the group has given her a network of support.

TAJ'AE HARRIS: And it's such a safe space that we all just, like, click. And we just kick it together in there while we're learning.

NGUYEN: She says she's learned a lot that has made her feel more confident about giving birth.

HARRIS: Like, coping during labor, different things to ask the doctors, different things to make you feel safe.

NGUYEN: Wren says it was possible to launch a program like this in Oakland because the city is home to many Black midwives and doulas. That's not the norm in most places. Black people only represent about 7% of midwives. But she thinks other aspects of the program, like group care and wraparound social services, can be implemented anywhere. California is looking to introduce the program to other public health care systems. For NPR News, I'm Daisy Nguyen in Oakland.

(SOUNDBITE OF SAM EVIAN SONG, "CAROLINA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Daisy Nguyen