How do you keep Georgia mothers healthy? This group wants to find out

Georgia is struggling to keep its women healthy. The state has one of the highest maternal mortality rates in the country, and access to health care can be especially difficult for low-income and rural residents.

But things could soon get better in Middle Georgia.

The North Central Health District and Mercer University School of Medicine recently announced a new partnership to improve maternal health in the region. Through shared resources and research efforts, the two organizations will be able to better evaluate the work they’re already doing and investigate new ways to promote women’s health.

“We’re trying to marry some practical initiatives with some research initiatives, which will eventually, you know, help policy making,” said Jennifer Barkin, associate professor of community medicine and obstetrics and gynecology at Mercer’s medical school.

Studying health care practices can improve quality of care, said Amber Erickson, director of epidemiology, community assessment and research initiatives for the North Central Health District.

“The more evidence-based practices we are able to offer our community members, the better off they will be,” Erickson said.

North Central Health District already provides dozens of resources to women, from pap smears to testing for sexually transmitted diseases. Studying the effectiveness of those programs, as well as the gaps they leave behind, will help the department better address health issues facing women in the district.

The new academic health department will then be able to promote those findings and share best practices with other communities.

Barkin already has started thinking about research studies to conduct. Bibb County recently introduced a program to provide prenatal care in a group setting, which Houston County doesn’t yet offer. Barkin hopes to compare the outcomes at the health department’s prenatal clinics in the two counties and see if the new initiative is worth expanding.

The challenge will be narrowing down which projects to pursue, Barkin said.

“There’s almost more information than we can capture,” she said. “So, getting the right, you know, strategy. The right questions to answer now where we can, you know, not over commit and promise a bunch of things that we can’t deliver on.

”The health of the community won’t change in just a year.”

But with time, the department’s finding could have a lasting impact, in Middle Georgia and beyond.

New research also will help the health department publicize the services it already offers women, which often go under the radar, said Megan Chapman, maternal and child health coordinator for the North Central Health District.

“For the public, also, to know what we do is sometimes a challenge, too,” she said. “You know, they’ll say, ‘Oh, I didn’t know you guys did that at the health department,’ or, ‘I didn’t know you guys were involved in that,’ or ‘I didn’t know you could help me with that.’ So just the visibility of what public health does on a daily basis.”

The district chose to focus on women’s health for its new partnership with Mercer because of the integral role it plays in the overall health of the community.

“The woman is kind of responsible for the oversight of the health of the family,” Barkin said. “And I don’t know if that’s written anywhere, but it’s the truth.”

Chapman has felt that weight firsthand. While breastfeeding her first child about a year ago, she realized that she alone was responsible for nourishing her baby.

Women need help as they navigate motherhood, and the health department can provide that support, Chapman said.

“We offer those services at a low-cost rate, so being able to service anyone,” she said. “Our doors are always open.”

Samantha Max is a Report for America corps member and reports for The Telegraph with support from the News/CoLab at Arizona State University. Follow her on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/smax1996 and on Twitter @samanthaellimax. Learn more about Report for America at www.reportforamerica.org.