Reducing Racial Disparities in Maternal and Perinatal Health Outcomes

UH Healthy Start is a national initiative dedicated to enhancing the well-being of mothers, infants, and families throughout the entire pregnancy journey and beyond. Utilizing community-based recruitment, coordinated care case management, home visits, and outreach, along with educational efforts, Healthy Start aims to diminish infant and maternal mortality rates, enhance access to prenatal care, and eliminate service-related barriers. 

In Houston, maternal mortality is disproportionately high, particularly among Black women, with rates three times the national average. Recognizing the multifaceted factors influencing negative maternal and prenatal health outcomes, UH Healthy Start directs its focus towards addressing the fundamental issues involving individuals, systems, and communities.  

During a recent Gramercy meeting, UH Healthy Start team members came together to elevate the program's success and the positive progression of its mothers. Here, Program Director La Sondra Noil, MSW emphasized the program's commitment to the people served and the primary objective of the caseworkers, doulas, and nurses in equipping program participants with the necessary tools and treatment plans to regain control over their lives, empowering them to advocate for themselves and their infants.  

Dr. McClain Sampson, Associate Professor and Principal Investigator for UH Healthy Start, underscores the significance of acknowledging and prioritizing the mother's experience and creating customized treatment plans that align with the individual's needs.

"Providing voice and meaning to the lives of the mothers and fathers within the program and ensuring everyone has essential access to resources is a key step towards social justice."
Dr. McClain Sampson

Community-Based Recruitment  

There are five Healthy Start Programs in Texas. Each of these programs has a Community Action Network (CAN) consisting of neighborhood residents, community leaders, consumers, medical and social service providers, faith-based leaders, and business representatives who provide an infrastructure for comprehensive and collaborative planning. In addition to their fully community-based recruitment approaches, UH Healthy Start also offers flexible enrollment and partners with local community organizations to provide integrated care, further improving the quality of and access to health care and other supports (i.e., mental health and telehealth services, in-home nurse care, access to doula care).  

Maternal Care Clinical Practitioner Kimberly Taylor-Branch, RN, BSN shared how her partnership with UH Healthy Start allows her to be an active participant in her community.

“Removing barriers by building rapport and personally extending my hand in educating and ensuring the health and safety of our high-risk clients within my community is my true passion point,” Kim shared.  

UH Healthy Start caseworkers are an essential part of the program's community outreach. They serve as the liaisons who bridge the gap between clients and services, educating the clients and providing that extra layer of support from the earliest phases of pregnancy to postpartum. Doula Liaison and Coordinated Care Case Manager Shaquaya Frank encourages her clients to “lean on their support and never feel ashamed to ask for help.” For Shaquaya, "there is nothing more impactful than watching a mother thrive and grow into their new role."  

Serving Fathers  

UH Healthy Start helps the full family unit, including the fathers. Fatherhood Involvement Coordinator Cal Joubert recruits dads with young babies and assists them with enrolling in educational programs and obtaining the support they need for both their families and themselves. As a native Houstonian, Cal is invested in being a part of his community and helping fathers build a solid foundation within their families.

"If I can impart what I’ve learned as a father and from my father, it is my duty to reach back and give back," Joubert says.

Cal tells us that he encourages his fathers to be patient and really value the importance of reading to their children, encouraging their partners to breastfeed, and male self-care.  

Measuring Success  

The goal of UH Healthy Start is to reduce maternal and perinatal racial disparities and remove barriers to equitable care. There are several ways that the program's performance and success are measured. For UH Healthy Start team members, success is defined by the mother’s ability to utilize the resources provided and complete the program, starting with enrollment during the first trimester, carrying to full term, birthing a baby that meets the pre-term birth rate, and participating in regular pre- and postpartum clinical visits until the baby is 18 months old.

“Healthy Start’s pre-term birth rate is lower than the the pre-term birth rate in Houston. We are very proud of that,” Dr. Sampson shared.  

Over the last 5 years, UH Healthy started has graduated more than 800 mothers, fathers and babies from their program. Nearly 70% of Healthy Start participants are Black and half of those graduates enrolled during pregnancy. Through its comprehensive approach and dedicated team, UH Healthy Start strives to improve maternal and infant health outcomes in the Houston community and beyond. By doing so, the program contributes to the research on a hard to reach population that is often overlooked and underserved with the ultimate goal of  healthy families.