by Alexis Clark
Tennessee State University is set to address the increasing death rate of new mothers across the state and the country with a grant of $2.3 million from the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA). The five-year grant will support the establishment of a research center dedicated to applied maternal health disparities research. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), maternal mortality rose from 861 maternal deaths in 2020 to 1,205 maternal deaths in 2021, a 40% overall increase.
Dr. Wendelyn Inman, TSU’s Interim Public Health program director, addressed the urgent need for action as the United States has the highest rate of maternal deaths across the globe.
“That should be unheard of,” Inman said. “Part of it is because we don’t have culturally competent providers. Providers aren’t sensitive to their needs.”
TSU has been allocated $483,400 of the HRSA grant for the first year. Inman, who is the principal investigator for the grant, noted the significance for underrepresented women, emphasizing the importance of being part of research from the beginning, rather than entering at a later stage when it might be too late.
“That will make a big difference to some women’s life, and some child who gets to keep their mother.”
The CDC categorizes maternal mortality as death while pregnant or within 42 days of the end of pregnancy. This is irrespective of the duration and site of the pregnancy, from any cause related to or aggravated by the pregnancy or its management, but not from accidental or incidental causes. Statistics from the World Health Organization, from 2021, revealed “the maternal mortality rate for non-Hispanic Black (subsequently, Black) women was 69.9 deaths per 100,000 live births, 2.6 times the rate for non-Hispanic White (subsequently, White) women (26.6.) Rates for Black women were significantly higher than rates for White and Hispanic women.”
TSU second-year Master of Public Health student J’La Jenkins believes cultural competency is important, even within her program.
“Especially being a Black woman of childbearing age, knowing the importance of how high the rates of maternal mortality are among Black women that look like me,” Jenkins said. “It is important that we have TSU, which is in the heart of a Black community, to be the research center for this work.”
Jenkins added that receiving this grant enables TSU to increase the public health workforce representing underserved communities. She said the numbers are declining and that receiving this grant from HRSA shows the university’s commitment to turning those numbers around.
“Not only is this going to impact me, but generations after me. I was astonished at how the university is currently underfunded, but we are still able to be the house of this research center,” she said.
From 2017 to 2020, the state of Tennessee reported that 113 women died during pregnancy or within a year of pregnancy from causes related to or aggravated by pregnancy. These pregnancy-related deaths accounted for 35% of all deaths during that period. A published report from the state also saw a 2.5% increase in birth-related deaths for non-Hispanic Black women compared to their non-Hispanic White counterparts. Cardiovascular diseases, compounded by disparities, emerged as leading causes. TSU, along with 15 other HBCUs, received funding to establish research centers. Dr. Inman expressed the importance of involving the community in the research process to ensure a diverse and inclusive approach from the ground up. Inman said this research, alongside other HBCUs, will create research turned into interventions to help within the community.
“We are going to have research centers so we can train doctoral, master’s level, and undergraduate students to join the public health workforce and the health care workforce to make a difference from the inside out. HRSA knows that if we can get more African-American providers out there, we will see better outcomes. This will also highlight the pivotal role it plays in addressing the root causes of maternal mortality.”
Dr. Quincy Quick, TSU’s associate vice president of Research and Sponsored Programs, stressed the grant’s significance.
“Receiving funding from HRSA at TSU will bolster our capacity and capabilities in public health research, specifically as it relates to maternal mortality rates,” he said.
“This is particularly significant given that the state of Tennessee has one of the highest maternal mortality rates in the country.”
Both Inman and Quick believe the HRSA grant and HBCU maternal mortality research initiative will place underrepresented women at the forefront. Just as important, it positions TSU to provide groundbreaking research to address these health disparities and to train a diverse and inclusive public health workforce that can bring the meaningful change needed to save lives for the state of Tennessee and beyond.