As Unplanned Pregnancy Rates Drop, Births Improve
Unplanned pregnancies often result in delayed prenatal care, which can increase health risks for both mother and baby. They’re also associated with higher numbers of premature births and lower birth weights, which affect children’s health outcomes. Simply put, fewer unplanned pregnancies means more healthy moms and babies. It’s a fact that has ignited efforts to address unplanned pregnancies as a strategy to improve infant mortality rates.
With the rate of unplanned pregnancies dropping by six percent in recent years, these efforts are proving successful and can be used to motivate future improvement efforts. Nearly half of U.S. pregnancies are still unplanned and accompanied by significant disparities. Seventy-five percent of teenage pregnancies are unintended and black and Hispanic women have far higher rates of unintended pregnancies than white mothers. Much of these disparities are a result of less education, lower income and other social determinants of health that can further exasperate a pregnancy’s risk.
“We can change these numbers,” says Zhandra Levesque, MPH, project director for the NICHQ-led Collaborative Improvement and Innovation Network to Reduce Infant Mortality (Infant Mortality CoIIN). “We need to keep investing in strategies that empower women to protect and take pride in their sexual and reproductive health.”
Long-acting reversible contraceptives (LARCs) are one of those strategies. LARCS, which include IUDs and birth control implants, are more effective than any other form of birth control, in large part because they require minimum maintenance, which leaves little room for user error. Yet, despite their effectiveness, they’re only used by 10 percent of women.
“If we’re thinking about strategies to spread and scale, there’s a clear opportunity here,” says Levesque. “Especially when we consider the bright spots we uncovered during the Infant Mortality CoIIN; each success provides a foundation for states across the country to build on.”
Incorporate LARCs into Postpartum Care
During the postpartum care that immediately follows delivery, providers are already engaging mothers in conversations about healthy birth spacing. These conversations offer a seamless opportunity to discuss the effectiveness of LARCs as a contraception choice and, if the mother chooses, perform immediate insertion.
They’re also an opportunity to reach mothers who might not be able to return for their follow-up appointments, which may account for more than half of mothers on Medicaid. Finding transportation, getting time off from jobs, accessing affordable childcare—each can make it more difficult for a new mother to get back to a clinical setting. Helping all mothers return for follow-up care should always be the highest priority; but providing these services immediately guarantees all mothers immediate options.
“Postpartum insertion is a strategy that can promote healthy birth spacing, and in return improved birth outcomes for women and infants,” affirms Levesque. “This means it deserves our attention. We want to give mothers every chance to make informed decisions about their future pregnancy habits, especially since they’re already under the many stresses imposed by the social determinants of health that regularly affect their lives.”
LARCs have steep upfront costs though, which can overshadow their long term economic benefit. Because of this, hospitals are less likely to stock them and have them on hand for postpartum insertion. As a result, many mothers are still forced to wait until their follow-up visit. Recognizing the inherent risks in this approach, South Carolina implemented a policy through Medicaid that offered hospitals full reimbursement if they inserted LARCs postpartum and prior to discharge.
For policy improvements to be successful they don’t just need to be feasible; they also need buy-in from stakeholders across the hospital. Clinicians need to know how to insert the devices and all caregivers should be educated on LARCs’ effectiveness and ease of use. Knowing this, South Carolina’s team worked to identify champions at every stage of the mother’s journey. From prenatal care providers, to physicians and nurses, to lactation consultants, each are potential resources for pregnant mothers and each received appropriate training. Thanks to these efforts, more new mothers better understand their reproductive choices and have the freedom to take immediate advantage of LARCs.
Leverage Women as Stakeholders
LARCs come with many misconceptions: they’re only available for women who have had children, they have unmanageable side effects, they cause abortions. These misconceptions, among others, mean that too many women are making reproductive choices based on faulty information.
Understanding the social, cultural and historic perspective on LARCs can help states address those misconceptions. North Carolina used surveys to reach out to women directly, asking them what they knew, heard and believed about LARCs. By working with community based programs, like Healthy Start, and making the survey available in both English and Spanish, they identified 100 diverse participants from different communities across the state.
The results were illuminating. Some women revealed that their providers did not offer LARCs as an option; and many women based their contraceptive choices on the advice and experiences of their friends.
These responses sparked North Carolina to change how they approached contraception education. They developed a pilot to test a series of life-planning questions that providers could use to improve conversations with patients. They also recruited young adults to join a community leadership council so that local voices are represented in future improvement efforts and spread through their communities. Each of these strategies helps elevate women as active stakeholders in decisions that directly affect their reproductive health.
“Reproductive choices are personal,” says Levesque. “That’s why each of these strategies, whether pre- or postpartum, involves building women’s self-efficacy. We want women to feel empowered in their choices and empowered in their pregnancies. Improving LARC education and access, ensuring it’s an option available to all women—it’s a step towards giving women the choices they deserve and ultimately improving children’s health.”
Ready to uncover more strategies to increase access to LARCs? Check out this issue brief, which provides a deeper dive into LARCs' current availability, barriers to prescribing it and potential Medicaid reimbursement models.Or learn more about a learning community developed by ASTHOS, dedicated to increasing immediate postpartum insertion.
NICHQ Employee Spotlight: Kelly Edwards, MPH, Senior Project Manager
Kelly Edwards discusses her journey from NICHQ intern to Senior Project Manager, and shares highlights and key takeaways from the six NICHQ projects she's supported.
Children and Their Families Have a Right to Gender-Affirming Healthcare
As physicians, public health professionals, and care providers, we have an obligation to support youth with unique healthcare needs who are at higher risk for negative health outcomes from discrimination, including bullying, physical assault, and suicide. Join us by engaging in meaningful dialogue about best practices for gender diverse kids to improve quality of life, reduce mental health disparities, and most importantly, help the most historically marginalized kids achieve their optimal health.
3 Ways to Close Gaps in Sickle Cell Disease Care: Recommendations from NICHQ Projects
In the past several decades, clinicians, public health professionals, and those with lived experience have seen advancements in Sickle Cell Disease (SCD) treatments and research that have significantly improved outcomes and increased life expectancies for people living with SCD. For example, the FDA-approved medication hydroxyurea (HU) has been recommended as a SCD standard of care due to its ability to help people with SCD mitigate pain and the need for blood transfusions. Preventative measures, such as screening children and adolescents for risk of stroke and ensuring that all people who have SCD receive recommended vaccinations, have also been instrumental in reducing complications associated with SCD. And recently, development of gene therapies has presented possibilities of a new cure. Conversations on how to improve access to care should continue, and these three recommendations begin with some of the most pressing needs.
Racially Motivated Violence is a Children’s Health Issue
In the wake of recent mass shootings in Buffalo, Uvalde, and Highland Park, and too many others, we discuss the mental health implications of racially motivated and gun violence on children and their families with Stacy Scott, PhD, MPA, Executive Project Director and Equity Lead at NICHQ, and Becky Russell, MSPH, Senior Director of Applied Research and Evaluation at NICHQ.
NICHQ Employee Spotlight: Kenn Harris
Here, NICHQ Executive Project Director and Engagement Lead Kenn Harris shares his experience with the Federal Healthy Start Program and encourages organizations to dive deeper when addressing equity.