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Lawmakers say expanding telehealth could make pregnancy safer

A pregnant woman stands for a portrait.
LM Otero
/
AP
A pregnant woman stands for a portrait in Dallas on May 18.

The risk of death for mothers during pregnancy or in the year following childbirth is rising and experts say one of the contributing factors is lack of access to healthcare. Now, as part of an effort to address the trend, Florida lawmakers are looking into a plan to expand maternal telehealth.

A pilot program in Florida has been using remote monitoring tools like blood pressure cuffs and glucose monitors to help ensure women who might otherwise struggle to access care, can have healthy pregnancies and recoveries after giving birth. Kenneth Scheppke with the Florida Department of Health says so far, it’s working.

“One mother noticed that her baby wasn’t moving much and because of the rapid access to telehealth services, they were able to rapidly identify an emergent condition, get the mother in, do a cesarean section and now both mother and baby are home and healthy—something that is credited to this particular program to have that immediate availability of care,” Scheppke says.

The program has helped to catch dangerously high blood pressure among pregnant participants, helped women monitor their blood sugar levels and has even helped mothers struggling with addiction.

Over the past 10 years, out of almost 2.2-million live births in Florida, 416 Florida women died from pregnancy related causes. Many of those deaths might have been preventable if risk factors like high blood sugar or high blood pressure had been caught more quickly. The rate of those risk factors, called maternal morbidity is on the rise too.

The Florida maternal morbidity rate has increased from 17.9 cases per 1,000 deliveries in 2017 to 23.6 cases per 1,000 deliveries in 2022 and Scheppke says "Florida’s data is in line with national data that reveals non-Hispanic Black women are twice as likely to have severe maternal mobidities as non-Hispanic white women in 2022."

Getting care and following up with regular doctors visits can be difficult for people who live in maternity care deserts—defined as counties with no hospital, birthing center or obstetric providers—or for minorities who may not trust the healthcare system.

READ MORE: A new report details obstacles to maternity care in Florida

The maternal telelhealth pilot program began in 2021 and earlier this year lawmakers expanded it to encompass 18 Florida Counties. During a Senate committee hearing lawmakers discussed the possibility of expanding the program to the rest of the state. It’s something Sen. Gayle Harell (R-Stuart) says she’d like to learn more about. But she says the committee needs a better understanding of the potential cost involved and who could benefit.

Sen. Lauren Book (D-Plantation) says as lawmakers look into expanding the program, she'd like to make sure it covers mental healthcare as well.

“You know when you’re trying to leave the house with a baby, sometimes that is not easy to do. But having telehealth for mental health in that universe is important," Book says. 

Addressing healthcare issues is one of Senate President Kathleen Passidomo’s top priorities for the upcoming legislative session that starts in January.
Copyright 2023 WFSU. To see more, visit WFSU.

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