Nursing & Healthcare News

Nurse Detectives at Work

Investigating maternal mortality

Postpartum nurse holding a new born baby in front of a young mother

Each year, hundreds of new mothers die within 12 months of giving birth. The nurses and other practitioners on the CDC’s multidisciplinary mortality review committees seek to better understand why.

Health Equity Failings

While infant mortality rates are usually a matter of public concern, maternal mortality only occasionally makes headlines. Even so, the 700 or so maternal deaths that occur in the U.S. each year are not only individual tragedies, but also important indicators of broader social problems in public health and health equity.

For example, while California has lower rates of pregnancy mortality than the national average, mortality for California’s new Black mothers is disproportionately high.

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To get to the bottom of maternal death cases, the CDC ERASE MM (Enhancing Reviews And Surveillance to Eliminate Maternal Mortality) program has convened multidisciplinary maternal mortality review committees (MMRCs) at the state and local level. There are now 39 of these MMRCs, usually involving and sometimes led by nurses, nurse midwives and NPs.

Preventable Deaths

Maternal deaths are not due to any one cause. Some result from medical problems created or exacerbated by pregnancy. Some are suicides or overdoses; a few are homicides. According to a recent CDC study based on MMRC reports, more than 80 percent are preventable.

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Nurse-midwife Karen Sheffield-Abdullah, RN, Ph.D., CNM, an assistant professor at UNC Chapel Hill School of Nursing, is part of North Carolina’s MMRC. “We are so baby focused,” she laments. “Once the baby is here, it’s almost like the mother is discarded.”

Data-Driven Solutions

The ultimate goal of “nurse-detectives” like Sheffield-Abdullah is to identify underlying problems, like inadequate postpartum checkups, and design and implement data-driven solutions. “[W]hat we really need to be thinking about is that fourth trimester, that time after the baby is born,” says Sheffield-Abdullah.

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