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Commonsense initiative aims to reduce maternal mortality among Black women

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

Black women are nearly three times more likely than white women to die of pregnancy-related causes. A hospital in Boston hopes to change that by helping patients track their blood pressure at home. From member station WBUR in Boston, Priyanka Dayal McCluskey reports.

PRIYANKA DAYAL MCCLUSKEY, BYLINE: With both feet flat on the floor, Kennise Nevers settles into a sofa in her living room. She peels open a blood pressure cuff and straps it around her arm.

(SOUNDBITE OF VELCRO RIPPING)

MCCLUSKEY: She gets her reading in about a minute.

(SOUNDBITE OF MACHINE WHIRRING)

KENNISE NEVERS: It's perfect.

MCCLUSKEY: This blood pressure cuff is high tech. Like a cellphone texting a message, Nevers' cuff sends information straight to her electronic health record, where her nurse, Megan O'Brien, can see the numbers 20 miles away at Boston Medical Center.

MEGAN O'BRIEN: So the first thing I do every morning is look at all of the high readings that have come in since the night before.

MCCLUSKEY: High blood pressure is known as the silent killer because it can rise to dangerous levels without symptoms, and it can lead to serious problems during pregnancy. If O'Brien sees a concerning blood pressure reading, she follows up. Close monitoring can help doctors and nurses step in before a patient is in danger.

O'BRIEN: We're intervening so much quicker in these potential problems that, you know, could be happening at home - stroke, heart attack, seizure. So it's really about catching those as fast as possible.

MCCLUSKEY: This effort at Boston Medical Center has another goal - to reduce the stark racial disparities in maternal health. Dr. Tina Yarrington is the hospital's director of maternal fetal medicine. She has seen a lot of pregnancies that didn't go well, and the problems often started with high blood pressure, or hypertension.

TINA YARRINGTON: It's the root cause for many, many maternal health inequities. People who are marginalized by structural racism - people who are Black, African American, Latina, Hispanic - suffer higher levels of hypertension and higher levels of complications when that hypertension strikes.

MCCLUSKEY: When blood pressure rises suddenly in pregnancy, it's called preeclampsia. Yarrington says this condition affects about 14% of the hospital's white patients.

YARRINGTON: But in our Black and African American population, it's closer to 18%.

MCCLUSKEY: Dr. Rose Molina is an OB-GYN at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston. She studies maternal health disparities, and she's hopeful.

ROSE MOLINA: I think that's one of the most exciting things about this is that it does have the potential to reduce inequities because it brings care home.

MCCLUSKEY: Early results are promising. Kennise Nevers was eight months pregnant and cooking for a big family dinner one evening last October when her blood pressure suddenly spiked.

NEVERS: We were actually getting ready to play cards, and I was like, oh, let me just check my blood pressure before I play. And, yep, night ended pretty quick.

MCCLUSKEY: Nevers went to the hospital. And the next day, doctors induced labor. Her baby, AJ, was born three weeks early, but strong and healthy.

NEVERS: Hey. Hi.

MCCLUSKEY: Nevers says she's grateful that doctors and nurses watched her so closely during pregnancy and after.

NEVERS: I mean, of course you're always going to worry. It's pregnancy. Things change all the time. But it eased some of my worry.

MCCLUSKEY: Nevers made it past the high-risk postpartum days without developing a complication. But she has chronic hypertension, so she still keeps her blood pressure cuff handy.

For NPR News, I'm Priyanka Dayal McCluskey in Boston.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUILTY GHOSTS' "THE PEOPLE YOU LOVE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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