The Value of Strategic Partnerships for Improving Maternal Health

May 15th, 2024 | viewpoint


By Jennifer Kawatu, BSN, RN, MPH; Meg Sheahan MSN, CNM, MPH; and Clancey Bateman, MS, MPH

In a unique partnership, and recognizing their complementary priorities, the Office of Population Affairs (OPA) and the Office on Women’s Health (OWH), came together to jointly fund the JSI-led Reproductive Health National Training Center (RHNTC). The RHNTC launched in 2020, with the goal of equipping professionals in the sexual and reproductive health care field with the skills and knowledge necessary to provide high-quality services and programming. The RHNTC provides training and technical assistance, primarily for federally funded Title X family planning sites, on how to integrate strategies for improving maternal health outcomes into sexual and reproductive health services. By improving maternal health at the point of care, the RHNTC helps address disparities in maternal morbidity and mortality.

OPA has this captive audience of implementers and potential beneficiaries—Title X clients are a perfect population to promote maternal well-being to because they are by and large people of reproductive age. There’s this beautiful opportunity for prevention of these issues that really do impact maternal health.” –Meg Sheahan, RHNTC clinical consultant

In recognition of National Women’s Health Week, OWH is highlighting the unique challenges women face, including reproductive health conditions, heart health, maternal mental health, gender-based violence, and eating disorders. Many of these issues are still heavily stigmatized, and women often feel that their concerns are dismissed by health care providers or they are subject to unconscious bias. This can lead to misunderstandings, a lack of needed health care services, and, in the worst cases, a missed diagnosis.

Consider, for example, postpartum health. Despite evidence that 53 percent of pregnancy-related deaths occur from one week to one year after pregnancy [1], most efforts to reduce maternal morbidity and mortality focus on the prenatal and immediate postpartum period. Sexual and reproductive health providers may not be aware of the opportunities to intervene. The national Hear Her campaign was specifically designed to raise awareness about urgent maternal warning signs during and after pregnancy and to improve communication between patients and their health care providers. Providers can reduce their chances of missing postpartum warning signs that can lead to maternal mortality just by asking, “are you pregnant, or have you been pregnant in the past 12 months?”

The RHNTC collaborates with strategic partners to provide training and technical assistance (including opportunities for free continuing education) that strengthen sexual and reproductive health agencies’ capacity to intervene both before and after pregnancy. For example, the RHNTC partnered with the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists to focus on high impact practices that sexual and reproductive health providers can use to address both the leading causes of maternal mortality and racial disparities in maternal health. Working with Power to Decide, the RHNTC developed two podcast series. One focuses on advancing reproductive and sexual health equity in family planning care, and the other introduces the Reproductive Well-Being Framework, which aims to help providers improve patient-centered care and to support clients in determining if, when, and under what circumstances to have a child. The RHNTC also regularly engages leaders in the field and patient advocates with lived experience to provide training on topics such as substance use disorders, cardiac conditions, and reproductive justice.

Through joint funding from OPA and OWH, the RHNTC is able to support the work of Title X agencies to provide high-quality sexual and reproductive health services and improve maternal health. This important collaboration between two federal offices has an impact ranging from the grantee level to the community-based organizations providing sexual and reproductive health services. We have the power to address disparities in maternal morbidity and mortality by working together at multiple systems levels toward a common goal. As Naomi Clemmons, who provides training and technical assistance, said, “It’s upstream work. Sexual and reproductive health outcomes are a measure of maternal and infant health outcomes. We understand that achieving optimal maternal health is complicated—so as far upstream as we can get, the better…Title X has these amazing relationships outside of those clinic walls, so it’s also an opportunity to look at the continuum of care.”

The Reproductive Health National Training Center (RHNTC), managed by JSI, is a collaboration with the Office of Population Affairs and the Office on Women’s Health, both in the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Health in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The RHNTC addresses the needs of Title X family planning service delivery grantees and Teen Pregnancy Prevention grantees through training and technical assistance. Sign up for the RHNTC newsletter to learn about upcoming events and new resources.


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