"A pen and ink with watercolor illustration showing a cozy meeting room with comfortable couches and chairs arranged in a circle for an intimate group discussion. In the circle, diverse women of color, some pregnant some not, are seated for a support group. They listen to a woman leading the discussion, a doula (not pregnant), distinguished by her knit shawl, bead necklaces, and dangling silver earrings, giving her a New Age vibe. The room radiates warmth and closeness.
The Embrace Diversity Birth Circle meets at 5:00 p.m. on the second Thursday of each month in the Bishop Clapp Building Conference Room at Berkshire Health Systems.

BHS Partners to Launch Support Group for Expecting Women of Color

December 21, 2023

Berkshire Health Systems, in collaboration with Springfield Family Doulas and  Berkshire Nursing Families, has unveiled a groundbreaking initiative aimed at supporting birthing parents of color: the “Embrace Diversity Birth Circle: Supporting Women of Color” This innovative support group is specially tailored to address the unique needs and experiences of families of color during the critical perinatal period – the months surrounding the birth of a child. Scheduled to convene monthly at Berkshire Medical Center, this program represents a significant step towards nurturing a culturally sensitive and inclusive support system for expectant mothers in the community.

Funding Source and Primary Aim

The launch of the “Embrace Diversity Birth Circle” has been made possible through a grant from the Massachusetts Attorney General’s Office’s Maternal Health Equity Program. This funding underscores a commitment to bridging the gaps in maternal healthcare, particularly for women of color. The primary aim of this initiative is to confront and reduce the stark maternal health disparities that persistently affect these communities. By focusing on tailored care and support, the program seeks to empower birthing parents, ensuring they receive the attention and resources necessary for a healthy pregnancy and postpartum experience.

Maternal Mortality Rate Among Women of Color

The maternal mortality rate presents a troubling picture of disparity among women of color. Data indicates that Black women in the United States face a nearly threefold higher risk of death related to pregnancy compared to White women. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has concluded that in 2020, the maternal mortality rate for Black women soared to a distressing 55.3 deaths per 100,000 live births, a rate significantly higher than that for White women. Hispanic women, while experiencing a lower mortality rate than Black and White women, also saw a notable increase during the first year of the pandemic, with 18.2 deaths per 100,000 live births in 2020. These statistics reveal a stark disparity that underscores the urgent need for focused healthcare interventions and policies aimed at these vulnerable groups.

Impact of COVID-19 on Maternal Health

The COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated existing disparities in maternal health, particularly among Black and Hispanic women. According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), in 2020, the United States witnessed a 14% increase in maternal deaths compared to the previous year, with a significant proportion of these deaths occurring among Black and Hispanic women. The pandemic not only heightened the direct risks associated with pregnancy and childbirth but also intensified the challenges in accessing adequate healthcare. This scenario highlights the critical need for healthcare systems and support programs to adapt and respond more effectively to the evolving needs of expecting mothers during such crises.

Risks and Complications for Women of Color

Women of color, particularly those in the Black and Hispanic communities, face higher risks of specific pregnancy-related complications. Gestational diabetes, a condition affecting blood sugar levels during pregnancy, is notably prevalent among Hispanic women and can lead to further health issues like high blood pressure and type 2 diabetes post-pregnancy. Additionally, hypertension during pregnancy, a leading cause of pregnancy-related deaths, poses a significant risk. These health conditions emphasize the importance of early and continuous prenatal care to monitor and manage potential complications effectively.

Program’s Structure, Location, and Timing

The “Embrace Diversity Birth Circle” is structured as a monthly support group, carefully designed to cater to the specific needs of birthing parents of color during the perinatal period. Held in the welcoming environment of the Bishop Clapp Building Conference Room at Berkshire Medical Center, these sessions provide a safe and nurturing space for expectant mothers. Scheduled from 5:00 p.m. to 6:00 p.m. on the second Thursday of each month, the program offers convenient access for participants, ensuring that support and guidance are readily available throughout their pregnancy journey and beyond. This structured approach not only facilitates consistent care but is intended to foster a sense of community and belonging among the participants.

Co-facilitators and Their Backgrounds

The “Embrace Diversity Birth Circle” is led by two experienced and compassionate co-facilitators, Laconia Fennell and Tanita Council, co-founders of Springfield Family Doulas. Laconia Fennell brings a wealth of knowledge and empathy to the group, drawing from her extensive experience in supporting birthing parents. Tanita Council’s expertise complements this, with her background in maternal health advocacy and a deep understanding of the unique challenges faced by families of color during pregnancy. Together, their combined skills and experiences create an empowering and supportive environment for the group, ensuring that every participant receives personalized care and attention.

National Perspective on Maternal Health Disparities

The issue of maternal health disparities extends beyond local communities, reflecting a national crisis in healthcare. Across the United States, women of color, particularly Black and Hispanic women, face significantly higher risks of pregnancy-related complications and mortality. Reports indicate that Black women are up to four times more likely to die from pregnancy-related causes compared to white women, a disparity deeply rooted in systemic healthcare issues. Similarly, according to the (NIH), in Massachusetts, Black women are nearly twice as likely to experience fatal pregnancy-related complications. These alarming statistics at both state and national levels highlight a pressing need for targeted interventions and policy reforms to address these deep-rooted disparities in maternal healthcare.

Role of Socio-Economic Factors and Healthcare Access

Socio-economic factors, cultural barriers, and healthcare access significantly contribute to the disparities seen in maternal health. Women from marginalized communities often face challenges such as limited access to quality healthcare, lack of health insurance, and socio-economic hardships that hinder their ability to seek timely prenatal care. Cultural barriers, including language differences and varying health beliefs, further complicate these challenges, making it difficult for expecting mothers to receive adequate and appropriate care. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) cites studies by the CDC show that Hispanic women, for instance, are more likely to receive late or no prenatal care compared to non-Hispanic white mothers, which can lead to adverse outcomes. These issues underline the importance of addressing not just medical needs, but also the broader socio-economic and cultural context impacting maternal health.

Importance of Culturally Sensitive Healthcare

The disparities in maternal health outcomes underline the critical need for culturally sensitive healthcare and support systems. Culturally competent care that respects and understands the unique needs and backgrounds of women of color can significantly improve health outcomes. The American Heart Association’s initiative focusing on Hispanic/Latina mothers’ blood pressure management during pregnancy is an excellent example of such targeted healthcare efforts. This approach, along with the dedicated efforts of programs like the “Embrace Diversity Birth Circle,” shows the positive impact of healthcare services that are not only medically sound but also culturally attuned. These programs serve as models for effectively reducing health disparities and improving the overall wellbeing of mothers and their babies.

Specific Goals of the Berkshire Cradle Program

The Berkshire Cradle Program, under the umbrella of Berkshire Health Systems, is dedicated to a series of focused goals aimed at improving maternal health outcomes for women of color. Central to its mission is the reduction of the alarming maternal mortality rates and health complications that disproportionately affect this group. The program seeks to ensure that expecting mothers receive comprehensive prenatal and postpartum care, tailored to their specific needs. By focusing on early detection and management of common pregnancy-related conditions such as gestational diabetes and hypertension, the Berkshire Cradle Program aims to significantly lower the incidence of preventable health issues and complications. Additionally, it strives to empower women through education, enabling them to take proactive roles in their health and pregnancy journeys.

Strategies to Reduce Health Disparities

To effectively reduce health disparities in maternal care, the Berkshire Cradle Program employs a multi-faceted strategy encompassing community resources, clinical support, and education. This approach includes expanding access to culturally sensitive healthcare services, ensuring that women of color have the resources and support necessary for healthy pregnancies. Community resources, such as peer support groups and partnerships with local organizations, play a vital role in creating a supportive network for expecting mothers. Clinically, the program emphasizes the importance of regular prenatal check-ups and individualized care plans, recognizing the diverse health needs of women from different backgrounds. Educational initiatives focus on raising awareness about the signs of pregnancy complications and the importance of early and continuous prenatal care, particularly in communities where such knowledge may not be widely disseminated or understood.

Acknowledging Challenges in Addressing Maternal Health Disparities

Addressing maternal health disparities is fraught with challenges, stemming largely from systemic issues deeply embedded in the healthcare system. The increasing maternal mortality rates, particularly among Black and Hispanic women, as highlighted by the pandemic, underscore the complexity of these disparities. These issues are not just medical but are intertwined with broader socio-economic factors, including access to healthcare, cultural barriers, and varying levels of health literacy. A more comprehensive healthcare approach is required, one that goes beyond traditional medical care to address the root causes of these disparities. This involves not only providing medical services but also tackling social determinants of health, enhancing community engagement, and ensuring equitable access to healthcare resources.

Future Goals of the Program

Looking forward, the Berkshire Cradle Program is committed to expanding its reach and enhancing its services to better serve the needs of women of color in the community. Future goals include broadening the scope of the program to cover more aspects of maternal health, such as mental health support and nutritional counseling. The program also aims to extend its geographical reach, making its services accessible to a larger demographic. Another key objective is to strengthen partnerships with community organizations and healthcare providers, fostering a more integrated approach to maternal care. By continuously evaluating and adapting its strategies, the Berkshire Cradle Program aspires to set a precedent in reducing maternal health disparities and improving outcomes for all mothers and their babies.

Program’s Significance in Massachusetts and Nationally

The Berkshire Cradle Program, particularly the “Embrace Diversity Birth Circle,” holds significant relevance both within Massachusetts and across the national landscape of maternal healthcare. In Massachusetts, where Black women face nearly twice the risk of pregnancy-related deaths compared to their White counterparts, this program is a critical step towards addressing these disparities. Nationally, the program aligns with efforts to tackle the United States’ maternal mortality crisis, which sees higher rates than many developed countries. By focusing on the unique needs of women of color, the program not only addresses a local need but also contributes to a broader national effort to improve maternal health outcomes. Its success could serve as a model for other regions grappling with similar disparities, offering valuable insights into effective strategies for reducing maternal mortality and improving overall maternal health.

Statistics and National Trends in Maternal Health

Comparing the Berkshire Cradle Program’s objectives with national maternal health trends underscores its importance. The Commonwealth Fund, in analyzing data from the World Health Organization and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, found that in the United States, the maternal mortality rate stood at 23.8 deaths per 100,000 live births in 2020, a figure alarmingly higher than in countries like the Netherlands, Norway, and New Zealand, where the rates were three deaths or fewer per 100,000 live births. This national crisis is particularly acute among Black and Hispanic women, who experience significantly higher mortality rates compared to non-Hispanic White women. The Berkshire Cradle Program’s initiatives directly address these disparities, aiming to bring much-needed improvements in maternal health care and outcomes, not just within Massachusetts but as a leading example for the rest of the country.

Encouraging Community Involvement and Awareness

The success of the Berkshire Cradle Program and the “Embrace Diversity Birth Circle” hinges not only on the dedicated efforts of healthcare professionals but also on the active participation and awareness of the community. It is essential for community members, local organizations, and healthcare providers to come together in supporting and advocating for these initiatives. Raising awareness about the unique challenges faced by women of color during pregnancy, and the vital importance of early and regular prenatal care, is crucial. The community can play a significant role by spreading the word, volunteering support, and creating an environment that empowers and educates expecting mothers. Such collective involvement is key to transforming the landscape of maternal health care and making a real difference in the lives of women and their families.

Program’s Vision Seeks to Nurture a New Approach

The Berkshire Cradle Program, with its innovative “Embrace Diversity Birth Circle,” is more than just a healthcare initiative; it is a vision for the future of maternal health care for women of color. By providing targeted support, education, and compassionate care, the program aims to create a lasting positive impact on maternal health outcomes. Its vision extends beyond immediate healthcare needs, aspiring to build a foundation of health equity and empowerment for mothers of color. This vision embodies a commitment to not only address the current disparities in maternal health but also to pave the way for a future where every woman, regardless of her background, has access to the care and support she needs for a healthy pregnancy and childbirth experience.

Jason Velázquez

Jason Velázquez has worked in print and digital journalism and publishing for two decades.
Phone: (413) 776-5125

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