It’s perhaps the oldest partnership in health care – safeguarding an expectant mother through pregnancy, assisting with the miracle of birth, and caring for the new mother and infant afterward.
And increasingly, each stage of the process entails doctors treating patients remotely over high-speed internet and telecom connections.
That’s good news, because telehealth could help correct a major inequity in American health care.
It gives low-income pregnant women in medically underserved or rural areas unprecedented access to specialists who may be hundreds of miles away. Many of these patients in greatest need of improved access are women of color. The latest studies show African American women are two-and-a-half times more likely than white women to die from complications of pregnancy and childbirth.
Examples of telehealth meeting the needs of underserved mothers and infants are popping up across the United States.
- In Arkansas, where 73 of 75 counties are designated as medically underserved, a groundbreaking program uses telehealth connections to oversee a support network of specialists for high-risk rural patients. Working closely with local physicians and clinics, this program allows patients to be examined, diagnosed and sometimes treated by specialists via telehealth connections.
- Meanwhile, Minnesota Children’s Hospital, the state’s only pediatric hospital, has just launched a telehealth program connecting its neonatal specialists to six smaller hospitals in the upper Midwest.
By improving care in underserved areas, these and similar programs could also help lower America’s maternal death rate, which is more than twice that of other wealthy nations.
But the benefits of telehealth aren’t limited to underserved areas. Family doctors, OB-GYNs and prenatal specialists are also using technology to provide more patient-centered care. Many routine visits and examinations can be done remotely. This gives patients easier access to their provider and saves them the expense and time of traveling to a doctor’s office.
Use of telehealth surged due to the COVID-19 pandemic, helped by temporary government and insurance measures. Now, it will be up to policymakers and insurers to extend provisions that could give telehealth a permanent place in maternal care.
The last year has proven that providers and health care systems can adapt and optimize their use of technology. With the right policies in place, these components can continue to make America a safer place for moms and babies.