Rural America faces a maternal health care crisis

  • Dr. Ashley McCurry, an Iowa native, is a board-certified Family Medicine Physician.

Mothers in rural America are facing a life-or-death maternal health care crisis that must not go unnoticed. U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley has taken an important step in their defense by proposing the Healthy Moms and Babies Act, legislation aimed at restoring health care access in rural communities where the maternal mortality rates continue to rise.

The importance of caring for expecting mothers, especially in my home state of Iowa, where I practice family medicine part time and where maternal mortality rates have skyrocketed, cannot be overstated.

The U.S. maternal mortality rate in 2020 was 23.8 deaths per 100,000 live births, with 861 known deaths due to maternal causes. This ranks the United States as the worst among all industrialized nations — astounding given the medical technology we possess and the fact that there are simple things that can be done to protect women.

Mothers living in rural areas of Iowa are struggling to travel long distances to receive the prenatal care they need for a healthy pregnancy. Even if a hospital is within reach, many do not provide labor and delivery services. In fact, the number of rural hospitals in the U.S. providing obstetric services declined from 2004 through 2018, and more than half of rural counties did not have any maternal care in 2018, according to research by the U.S. Government Accountability Office. This statistic also holds true in Iowa, where more than 25 labor and delivery units have closed down in the past decade.

I’ve seen these same factors at play in both rural Iowa and rural Kenya, where I also practice. In both places, the hardships women face under a lack of access to basic, life-saving medical care can sadly lead to potentially fatal conditions being overlooked and remaining undiagnosed until the situation is dire.

It is not unusual, for example, for a pregnant patient’s high blood pressure to go undiagnosed due to her remote location inhibiting access to care, putting the life of both the mother and child at risk.

Even after birth, women adjusting to their new roles as mothers see better results with medical support during an often emotionally and physically demanding phase of life. Providing telehealth visits to women who are remote from prenatal and postpartum services is just one way that medical professionals can establish more holistic health care for women in need.

The Healthy Moms and Babies act is a big step in the right direction toward protecting Iowa moms and babies from preventable health emergencies. It is my hope that one day, women everywhere will be empowered by accessible, holistic health care.

Dr. Ashley McCurry, an Iowa native, is a board-certified Family Medicine Physician.