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Health & Wellness

Why is the number of women dying in childbirth rising in New York?

Becky Harlan
National Public Radio

With New York's death rate for new mothers nearly doubling in very recent years, Albany has convened experts from across the state as the Maternal Mortality Advisory Council to figure out what is going on.

Not only is New York's maternal mortality rising, the overall figure is bad among American states and very bad in worldwide comparisons in the developed world.

The most recent 2016 data ranks New York 30th among the states. One of the key issues is women of color, since black women are three times as likely to die in childbirth as white women.

The plan is that the members of the panel will review every single case of maternal mortality in New York and look for patterns. Erie County Health Commissioner Dr. Gale Burstein, a local member of the council, said there is a goal.

"Reduce the risk of maternal mortality from the lessons that we learn by reviewing those cases," she said. "So this is really an opportunity to look at an overview of recent cases of maternal mortality and look at patterns of what really may have caused or precipitated those very sad events."

Burstein said some causes are known.

"Two-thirds of our pregnancy-related deaths in New York State involve caesarean sections," Burstein said. "So looking at ways to possibly avoid or decrease the number of caesarean sections in our state can also be a possible path to reducing maternal mortality."

Burstein said there will be a look at the potential effects of opioid use by mothers. She said there also will be a look at how many of the women received proper prenatal care. She said 67% of women who died were in the Medicaid program.

"We can do a better job," she said, "and so there are obviously some gaps and there is obviously a need for improvement and the only way we are going to figure that out is by reviewing cases, collecting data and bringing together a multi-disciplinary task force of experts to think about these problems and help review the cases and develop potential solutions."

The new state budget includes millions of dollars for the council, to implement recommendations and to add additional community health workers for high-risk areas statewide.

Among other members of the council is Dr. Vanessa Barnabei, professor and chair of the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at the University at Buffalo's Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences.

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