Obstetrical care will see a boost in the District. Howard University, Howard University Faculty Practice Plan and Unity Health Care recently signed an agreement to provide more women’s health services. More than 2,000 pregnant women in the District are predicted to benefit from the expansion of services through this integrated network. The partnership means more obstetricians will be on call, more neonatal beds will be available and more specialists will be available and closer to help with high-risk pregnancies.
Developing a network like this means that prenatal care for low-income women could significantly improve. How will the partnership work and who benefits the most from it?
The network brings together two forces that will provide some of the best comprehensive maternal care. Unity Health Care brings its own obstetricians to the table and midwives as well. Howard University only recently had midwives join its ranks. Unity Health Care midwives were operating out of Providence Hospital. They are now getting admitting privileges at Howard. Bringing patients to one of the 25 Unity Health Care clinics will help ease patient stress of traveling far from home for care. It also increases the likelihood of retaining women in care.
Howard University will see a boost in deliveries as well. Currently the delivery rate is about 900 babies per year. More women are expected to deliver at the Northwest hospital. Howard University also brings the Perinatal Diagnostic Center to the partnership. The center specializes in helping high-risk pregnancies safely deliver. Women are referred to maternal-fetal specialists when they are over the age of 35, are carrying multiples or have outlying medical conditions such as hypertension and diabetes.
Dr. Diana Lapp, deputy chief medical officer for Unity Health Care, says that each side brings a vital service to the partnership. “We have the same mission: to help the underserved. The high infant mortality rate in the District is something we both wanted to make a big impact on. Howard has specialists and they were looking to see how they could better serve the community east of the river.” Right now, she explains, “there is no maternal-fetal specialist east of the river. Patients were having to travel out of their neighborhood to see one. When patients have to travel to see a specialist, we lose them. We are the largest provider of OB and midwives east of the river. We’re excited. It’s about improving the health of our city.”
What Will This Mean for Patient Care?
The recent closures of the obstetrics units at United Medical Center and Providence Hospital left many expectant mothers in the lurch. There has been a long-standing shortage of primary care physicians in the city. Finding a specialist is even more difficult in communities on the east end. And having access to health insurance doesn’t necessarily increase the chances of finding a physician within low-income neighborhoods.
Around the time of Unity Health’s early beginnings, the District had an extremely high infant mortality rate (IMR). According to the KIDS COUNT data center, in 1990 the IMR in DC was 20.7 per 1,000 live births. In 2015, the rate was 8.6 per 1,000. Unity Health Care provides the largest number of obstetricians in Wards 7 and 8.
Through the years, communities in Southeast have suffered setbacks in healthcare. The closing of DC General Hospital in 2001 created a health gap. The maternal services gap widened with the closure of Columbia Hospital for Women in 2002. Unity Health Care along with the formation of the DC Healthcare Alliance, helped fill the void and provide preventative care for low-income residents. The bigger the care network, the stronger the connection to care, which is critical to keeping patients healthy before trouble begins.
Patients will deliver their infants at Howard University Hospital then transition to Unity Health Care’s network to receive follow-up services. They will also have access to nurses and healthcare professionals who can answer questions, coordinate service and help patients navigate the system.
Dr. Lapp states that linking Howard and Unity together makes the safety net better. “We are able to offer better care coordination through electronic records and coordinate our services through the same clinical guidelines so that we’re operating on the same page. This partnership would be beefing up the number of maternal-fetal specialists that would come from Howard.”
Having Unity Health Care at the service of the community also expands the preventative care. This is crucial when it comes to prenatal care. An expectant mother with a question or an urgent problem in the middle of the night needs a professional who will be available to guide her. Not only does that increase her chances of surviving pregnancy but it also keeps the baby healthy.
“Access to prenatal care is important,” says Dr. Lapp. “If the baby is healthier in the womb they will be healthier when they come out and improve the chance of survival. Prenatal care helps with earlier detection. If something is wrong in the pregnancy, prenatal care will help curb preterm delivery and lower infant mortality. The more we get people in earlier and educate them about the warning signs and keep them connected, the safer it is.”
In a press release, Wayne A. I. Frederick, president of Howard University, explains that the partnership will provide care to some of the most vulnerable citizens in the city. “Howard University Hospital’s specialized care combined with Unity’s primary care expertise and over 25 healthcare sites are a great match to meet the variety of needs of communities across the District, especially east of the Anacostia, where these services are needed most. This collaboration will allow District residents improved access to the quality healthcare they deserve.”
Healthy women and children are the pinnacle of a strong community. But they need support to keep going. When health giants combine forces to provide more care, moms and babies win.
Candace Y.A. Montague is the health reporter for Capital Community News.