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Symposium addresses maternal health crisis facing women across Georgia
Fireside Chat

Natalie Hernandez-Green, PhD, left, leads a fireside chat with featured guest speaker Heather Dobbs during the inaugural Symposium to Address the Maternal Health Crisis in Georgia at Emory University on Nov. 29, 2023.

— Photo by Jenni Girtman

ATLANTA – The numbers are stark. Women in Georgia are nearly twice as likely to die during pregnancy or within one year of the end of pregnancy than the national rate, and Black women in the state are three times more likely to die from pregnancy-related complications than white women. This issue was the basis of conversation at an event held at the Emory Conference Center Hotel on Wednesday.

The inaugural Symposium to Address the Maternal Health Crisis in Georgia — hosted by Emory University, Morehouse School of Medicine, Mercer University School of Medicine, and Research!America — brought together stakeholders from across health care, state and federal governments, community partners, and advocacy groups to collaboratively identify opportunities to improve maternal and newborn health in Georgia.

“We understand that with this crisis, we are not dealing with statistics. We are dealing with mothers, daughters, sisters, and the very core of what makes Georgians, Georgians — families, who are affected by this crisis,” says Ravi I. Thadhani, MD, MPH, executive vice president for health affairs at Emory University, who served as they symposium’s emcee.

“There is work already being done by superb investigators, institutions and programs across the state and we’re sadly still not making a major dent on this problem at the population level,” Thadhani adds. “Therefore, we need to start doing something different. And what can we be doing different? We can tackle this problem together and in much more creative and innovative ways.”

More than 250 people attended the symposium, which featured a keynote address by Georgia Department of Public Health Commissioner Kathleen Toomey, MD; a presentation on case studies in preeclampsia by Holger Stepan, MD, chair of the Department of Obstetrics at the University of Leipzig in Germany; and a panel discussion on pathways toward possible solutions to the maternal health crisis in Georgia.

Kathleen Toomey

Georgia Department of Public Health Commissioner Kathleen Toomey, MD, gives the keynote address during the inaugural Symposium to Address the Maternal Health Crisis in Georgia at Emory University on Nov. 29, 2023.

Photo by Jenni Girtman

“We need to proactively identify how we can deal with social determinants in a respectful and comprehensive way so we can have an impact on all health outcomes, not just pregnancies,” Toomey says. “Let’s look at this with a new set of eyes. Let’s look collectively to harness this energy, because in this room are the ideas, the energy, the intellect, the science, as well as the commitment to the community that can make this happen.

“This is the tipping point. Help us push this tipping point into success for every woman and child in Georgia, at all levels of life.”

Natalie Hernandez-Green, PhD, executive director of Morehouse School of Medicine’s Center for Maternal Health Equity, led a fireside chat with featured guest speaker Heather Dobbs, a doula and perinatal patient navigator at Morehouse School of Medicine, who shared the story of her own pregnancy-related complications.

“We live in a country that is full of resources and no woman should have to die from a pregnancy-related complication in a country that has one of the best health systems in the world. It should be a moment of joy and not a moment of dread,” says Hernandez-Green, who also serves as an associate professor in the Department of Community Health and Preventive Medicine at Morehouse School of Medicine. “There are so many things that we can do, and this symposium is an opportunity to put all of our minds together and deliver actionable steps to move forward and address this issue.”

The results of a first-of-its-kind statewide survey — commissioned by Research!America in partnership with the Woodruff Health Sciences Center at Emory University — were also released during the symposium and highlighted themes of public opinion around health equity, mental health, access to care and eagerness for state and federal support for research and action. 

“Georgia’s problem with maternal death and illness have been known for a long time and people are passionate about working to address it, but we still haven’t been able to change those terrible statistics. One of the reasons why is because we’ve been working in silos… not sufficiently talking and listening to each other, and not addressing some of the root causes together,” says Daniele Fallin, PhD, dean of Emory University’s Rollins School of Public Health. “There are not going to be easy solutions to the things that we’re trying to accomplish. … So, it is really exciting to have this kind of convening and to have so many people from so many different sectors working on the issue of maternal morbidity and mortality together.”

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