This nonprofit March of Dimes map shows maternity care deserts across the U.S. in 2020. March of Dimes/US Health Resources and Services Administration.
Access to maternity care is decreasing in many parts of the U.S., creating substantial challenges for pregnant women and their families.
Numbers continue to grow, affecting nearly 7 million women of childbearing age and ~500,000 babies, according to a report released recently by March of Dimes, a nonprofit focused on maternal and infant health. The report finds that 36% of counties nationwide — mainly in the Midwest and Southern regions of the U.S. — constitute as "maternity care deserts”.
Maternity deserts are areas in the United States (as well as other geographies) where access to maternity care is scarce or non-existent. These areas often have a shortage of obstetricians and gynecologists, and pregnant women may have to travel long distances to receive prenatal care and give birth.
Maternity deserts are becoming a significant problem in the United States, particularly in rural and low-income areas. According to a report from the United Health Foundation, approximately 9% of rural counties in the U.S. are considered maternity deserts, compared to just 1% of urban counties. These areas are often home to vulnerable populations, including women of color and low-income women, who may face additional barriers to accessing care.
The lack of access to maternity care in these areas can have serious consequences for the health of both mothers and babies. Pregnant women who live in these areas may have to travel long distances to receive prenatal care and give birth, which can be both logistically and financially challenging, in many cases practically not possible. Further, pregnant women who live in maternity deserts may be less likely to receive timely prenatal care, which can increase the risk of complications during pregnancy and childbirth. Babies born in these areas may also be at higher risk of being born prematurely or with low birth weight.
For example, a study published in the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology (ACOG) found that Hispanic women in the U.S. are more likely to live in a maternity desert than non-Hispanic white women. Similarly, a report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office found that Native American women on tribal lands are also more likely to live in a maternity desert, with some tribes experiencing a shortage of obstetric providers.
Higher-risk pregnancies and increasing rates of babies’ health issues in early childhood can have long-term impacts on their health and development. In addition, the lack of access to maternity care in these areas can have a negative impact on the overall health of the community, as expectant mothers and their families may have to travel long distances to receive care, disrupting their daily routines and increasing the risk of exposure to COVID-19 and other infectious diseases.
Overall, the problem of maternity deserts in the U.S. highlights the need for innovative prenatal care solutions to improve access to care for pregnant women and their families, particularly in underserved areas. Remote pregnancy monitoring and digital health solutions have the potential to help bridge the gap and ensure that expectant mothers and their babies receive the care they need, no matter where they live. These technologies allow healthcare providers to remotely monitor the health of pregnant women and provide support and guidance throughout the pregnancy.
For example, remote monitoring devices, as long as they are used properly, in a supervised manner, and under the guidance and care of medical professionals, can track the baby's heartbeat, measure the mother's blood pressure, weight, glucose levels, symptoms, mental health, and other vital signs. This information can be transmitted to healthcare providers in real-time, via an encrypted and secured system, allowing them to identify any potential problems and take action to address them.
Digital health solutions for maternity care can also provide expectant mothers with access to educational resources and support from healthcare professionals, including obstetricians, midwives, nutrition and mental health consultants, and lactation experts. These resources can help expectant mothers feel reassured and more confident, and supported during their pregnancy, which has already been proven to have a positive impact on the health of the pregnancy and help reduce the risk of complications.
Overall, remote pregnancy monitoring and digital health solutions have the potential to improve access to maternity care in underserved areas and help ensure that expectant mothers and babies receive the care they need. While these technologies cannot completely eliminate the problem of maternity deserts, they can help bridge the gap and ensure that pregnant women and their babies receive the care they need, no matter where they live.