What’s behind America’s rising maternal mortality rate

The U.S. has the highest rate of mothers dying during pregnancy, childbirth and postpartum of any developed country -- 26 women for every 100,000 live births. Last week, NPR and ProPublica published a joint investigation into the reasons why mothers are dying. ProPublica reporter Nina Martin joins Hari Sreenivasan from Oakland, California, to discuss what the investigation found.

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  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    On this Mother's Day, we call your attention to a very sobering fact: the United States has the worst rate of mothers dying during pregnancy, childbirth or postpartum than any country in the developed world. The maternal mortality rate is 26 women for every 100000 live births in the U.S.. NPR and ProPublica last week published a joint investigation into the reasons behind this problem. And ProPublica reporter Nina Martin joins me from Oakland, California, to discuss what they found. First of all, put that number into perspective for us. Twenty six out of 100000 doesn't sound like much. How does that stack up against the rest of who we compare ourselves to?

  • Nina Martin, ProPublica:

    Twenty-six out of 100000 translates to 700 to 900 women a year in the U.S., which compares to seven out of 100000 in Canada. I think it's four out of 100000 in most of the Scandinavian countries.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    You had a character in this tragic story about a neonatal nurse. I mean, someone who works around babies her whole life, and she's the central character in your story that ends up highlighting so much of what's wrong in the system. By textbook, she had a very good pregnancy. She was healthy. She did everything right. She had access to good health care. She delivered the baby well. And yet, how is it possible that she's one of the people that ends up as one of these statistics?

  • Nina Martin:

    I think there's a lot of people who assume that women who die in childbirth are pregnancy- related causes in the U.S. are sort of, you know, they're poor, they have bad health care, they have preexisting conditions, they're unhealthy, they don't get good prenatal care. There's all kinds of things that you know that we sort of assume are the explanations. And Lauren had all of those things. I think that one of the big issues that we haven't really looked at in this country so much around maternal care is everybody sort of said, Oh, look, we're so much better than we used to be women used to, you know, 800 women in this country used to die every day in childbirth. We've licked that problem. And meanwhile, babies are dying. And so let's focus on the babies. But we've sort of taken our eye off of maternal health. And so we don't really think about the kinds of safety, really basic safety, things that need to be put in place just to keep mom safe. And that's a really big part of what's happening. It's that it's that 60 percent of the deaths in the U.S. at least are preventable.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    What you also seem to highlight is that that is not a standard hospital protocol to deal with complications. So really, the ones that could have been small and prevent death end up cascading out of control into something much bigger.

  • Nina Martin:

    Yes. So again, none of this is, you know, the things that need to be done to prevent women from dying or nearly dying in childbirth in the U.S. are pretty well known. What Lauren had was a condition called pre-eclampsia. Two hundred thousand women a year develop pre-eclampsia in the U.S.. It's textbook. It's basic to OB-GYN care, and everybody knows what you're supposed to do. It's not that her her caregivers weren't good doctors, but they didn't recognize what was going on because they weren't on the same page about, you know, what the standards are and what we should do when certain standards hit. And overall, in the US, I think that this is a problem because maternal complications are thought not to be very common, but they're actually much more common than doctors and nurses realize, and they're not, a lot of hospitals and providers, doctors and individual nurses are not prepared for the worst. They expect the best. They're not prepared for the worst.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    All right. Nina Martin of ProPublica. Thanks so much for joining us.

  • Nina Martin:

    Thank you.

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