Maternal and infant health outcomes in Harris County are worse than in the state of Texas, and health care leaders said there’s not one specific reason as to why.

Dr. Victoria Regan, vice president of Women’s and Children’s Services at Memorial Hermann, cited a combination of factors, including patients not trusting the health care industry, not prioritizing health prior to pregnancy and lacking access to resources such as transportation.

“We’re starting to now really look at the voice of the consumer, the voice of the patient, to really understand what those maternal needs are,” she said.

Harris County earned an "F" on the nonprofit March of Dimes’ maternal and infant health report card, released in November. The failing grade is based on the county’s preterm birth rates being higher than the state’s average.

To combat this, Katy-area hospitals and nonprofits are investing to provide resources to pregnant patients and their babies pre- and post-partum.

The overview

Maternal health and infant outcomes go hand in hand, Regan said. Waller County, for instance, is a “maternity care desert,” referring to areas where access to maternity care services for pregnant patients is limited or absent.

Maternity care deserts and other systemic issues such as limited Medicaid expansion also contribute to poor outcomes, Regan said.

Additionally, August 2021 data from Surgo Ventures, a nonprofit health data resource, scored Harris and Waller counties as “F” grades in its maternal vulnerability index, which measures where mothers are vulnerable to poor health outcomes, making the likelihood of maternal mortality higher.

Harris County health officials said when it comes to the rise in pregnancy-related deaths since 2016, particularly among Black pregnant women, disparities are disproportionately affected by racial inequities and a lack of access to resources.

Barbie Robinson, Harris County Public Health executive director, said she believes the overall discussion around disparities must include the root causes of the many health conditions that lead to complications.

“When people are food insecure, when they’re housing insecure, when they have economic instability ... then we’re at risk of not seeing positive birthing outcomes,” Robinson said.

Conditions and illnesses such as hypertension and infections as well as lifestyle choices such as smoking or doing drugs, can greatly increase the likelihood of preterm birth or birthing complications, Regan said.
In Harris County, 1 in 8 babies are born preterm or before the gestational age of 37 weeks. Additionally, the March of Dimes report found leading causes of infant deaths included birth defects, preterm birth and low birth weight, and sudden unexpected infant deaths.
Zooming in

Postpartum support in the year following birth is also crucial to maternal health, said Kelli McAnally, executive director of Pregnancy Help Center of West Houston. The Christian-based nonprofit provides free pregnancy tests, ultrasounds and testing for sexually transmitted infections to women, many of whom have unplanned pregnancies.

The Katy-based organization also provides assistance enrolling in Medicaid insurance, prenatal and parenting workshops, and material assistance from its on-site store, such as strollers and car seats, McAnally said.

Postpartum classes and mentoring with fellow mothers are some of the services the center provides mothers after birth. The center’s 24/7 chat feature on its website, which launched last year and is managed by nurses, also can be supportive, McAnally said.

“We really try to connect women with other community resources as well, other groups in the community, other churches in the community, other places they can receive support as well and feel like they’re connected,” she said.

What's next

There are various countywide resources available to reduce maternal and infant mortality risks.

March of Dimes awarded the Memorial Hermann system a grant in March to help the system launch a mobile women’s care unit. Beginning in January, the vehicle will provide prenatal and postnatal visits and well-woman exams, Regan said.

Additionally, Harris County Public Health’s Maternal & Child Health Program is a home-based visiting model that provides trained professionals who offer one-on-one assistance for up to three years.

Locally, Memorial Hermann Katy Hospital finished the shell of its Medical Plaza 3 in June. The plaza will house the expanded maternal fetal medicine clinic and a new outpatient pediatric clinic, said Jerry Ashworth, senior vice president and CEO of Memorial Hermann Katy Hospital.

“Those will be some nice additions in the outpatient space both for women’s services and the [pediatric] population,” he said.