Two maternity wards closed last year east of the Anacostia River, complicating the lives of low-income women in need of care for high-risk pregnancies and delivery.
Community of Hope Conway Health and Resource Center in Southeast is helping fill the void. It is a one-stop primary health care clinic that has expanded its pre- and post-natal care services in response to demand over the course of its four years in the neighborhood.
Ahead of Mayor Muriel Bowser’s summit on maternal and infant health on Wednesday, Dr. Carla Henke, the organization’s chief medical officer, sat down for an interview with The Washington Times to discuss some of the challenges facing the District’s most vulnerable women.
“It’s beyond access and transportation,” Dr. Henke said. “There’s something bigger here that’s playing into the maternal mortality and low-birth weight and infant mortality rate. We need a citywide discussion.”
Death rates among new mothers in the nation’s capital are more than double the national average. Between 2005 to 2014, about 39 D.C. women per 100,000 died from complications of child birth, compared to the national rate of 17.2 women per 100,000.
For black women in District, the rate nearly doubles — an estimated 70 black women per 100,000 die during childbirth in the nation’s capital.
Starting Oct. 1, the D.C. Council will fund a committee to investigate and review cases of maternal deaths in the District to understand the underlying causes for the high death rates and recommend ways to improve survival rates.
Personal anecdotes reported in local news paint a picture of women suffering fragmented care at the earliest stages of pregnancy that culminate in encounters with overburdened or apathetic doctors.
The closing last year of emergency services in Ward 5’s Providence Hospital and the maternity suite in Ward 8’s United Medical Center exacerbated issues already at a breaking point for pregnant women.
Community of Hope also runs a free-standing birth center in Northeast that expectant mothers in their system can use. But the organization lacks services to treat high-risk pregnancies, and this contributes to a break in continuity of care.
“If I needed to refer to a specialist or a certain hospital or a patient needs to get an ultrasound, there’s some difficulty in getting those,” Dr. Henke said, adding that while transportation can be an issue, the core problem is that patients don’t know what services are available to them.
Dr. Henke said it took a while for community residents to trust that her organization was working for them, not against them.
“A lot of the trust building particularly in this community has come from word of mouth more so than the bigger advertising pushes,” she said. “It’s getting into the schools, church’s and the community centers.”
Once patients arrive to the 50,000 square-foot, modern, light-filled, glass and brick building, they are pleasantly surprised at the range of services — medical, dental, maternal and psychological care — and a counseling and resource center to prevent homelessness.
The center served more than 10,000 patients in 2016, up from 1,000 the year before. It runs a number of pre- and post-natal care services, offers lactation coaching and has a home-visiting program to identify at-home needs for new moms. Its pregnancy support groups, with between six to eight women, run four days a week.
“We’re trying to identify ways to making it the healthiest pregnancy possible,” Dr. Henke said.
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