80% of US Maternal Deaths Are Preventable: Study

Carolyn Crist

September 20, 2022

More than 80% of U.S. maternal deaths across a 2-year period were due to preventable causes, according to a new CDC report.

Black mothers made up about a third of deaths, and more than 90% of deaths among Indigenous mothers were preventable.

"It's significant. It's staggering. It's heartbreaking," Allison Bryant, MD, a high-risk pregnancy specialist and senior medical director for health equity at Massachusetts General Hospital, told USA Today .

"It just means that we have so much work to do," she said.

In the report, CDC researchers looked at pregnancy-related deaths between 2017 to 2019 based on numbers from maternal mortality review committees, which are multidisciplinary groups in 36 states that investigate the circumstances around maternal deaths.

Of the 1,018 deaths during the 2-year period, 839 occurred up to a year after delivery. About 22% of deaths happened during pregnancy, and 25% happened on the day of delivery or within a week after delivery. But 53% occurred more than 7 days after delivery.

Mental health conditions, such as overdoses and deaths by suicide, were the top underlying cause, followed by hemorrhage, or extreme bleeding. About a quarter of deaths were due to mental health conditions, followed by 14% due to hemorrhage and 13% due to heart problems. The rest were related to infection, embolism, cardiomyopathy, and high blood pressure-related disorders.

The analysis included a section on maternal deaths for American Indian and Alaska Native mothers, who are more than twice as likely as white mothers to die but are often undercounted in health data due to misclassification. More than 90% of their deaths were preventable between 2017 to 2019, with most due to mental health conditions and hemorrhage.

"It's incredibly distressful," Brian Thompson, MD, of the Oneida Nation and assistant professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Upstate Medical University in New York, told USA Today.

Thompson is working with the National Indian Health Board to create the first national tribal review committee for maternal deaths.

"It really needs to be looked at and examined why that is the case if essentially all of them are preventable," he said.

Black mothers were also three times as likely as white mothers to die and more likely to die from heart problems. Hispanic mothers, who made up 14% of deaths, were more likely to die from mental health conditions.

Some of the deaths, such as hemorrhage, should be highly preventable. Existing toolkits for clinicians provide evidence-based guidelines to prevent and treat excessive bleeding.

"No pregnant person should be passing away from a hemorrhage," Andrea Jackson, MD, division chief of obstetrics and gynecology at the University of California, San Francisco, told USA Today.

"We have the tools in the United States, and we know how to deal with it," she said. "That was really disheartening to see."

What's more, the new CDC report highlights the need for more mental health resources during pregnancy and the postpartum period — up to a year or more after delivery — including improvements in access to care, diagnosis, and treatment.

"These are things that need to happen systemically," LeThenia Baker, MD, an obstetrician and gynecologist at Wellstar Health in Georgia, told USA Today.

"It can't just be a few practices here or there who are adopting best practices," she said. "It has to be a systemic change."

SOURCES:

CDC: "Pregnancy-Related Deaths: Data from Maternal Mortality Review Committees in 36 US States, 2017-2019."

USA Today: "'Staggering' and 'sobering': More than 80% of US maternal deaths are preventable, CDC study shows."

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