Norton Healthcare is adding doulas to its care team with a goal of decreasing maternal mortality rates and other birth complications, particularly within Black communities.
Norton officials say the program is the first in the state to staff doulas to work with expectant parents through all parts of pregnancy.
For now, the program is only open to women living in west Louisville’s Russell, Portland and California neighborhoods, and participants must be referred by a doctor who delivers at Norton.
Adding doulas as an option creates a new layer of care for patients who have historically experienced disparities in health care and higher-than-average mortality rates.
“Evidence suggests that doula services shorten labors, they decrease complications, reduce cesarean delivery, increase positive birth experiences,” Cara Bland, regional practice manager with Norton, said at a Thursday press conference announcing the program.
With maternal mortality rates in Kentucky and nationwide on the rise in recent decades after hundreds of years of decline, Norton’s addition of doulas aims to turn those numbers around.
The U.S. has the worst maternal mortality rate of similarly wealthy countries and is among the worst in the “Western world.”
Black people are even more likely to experience health complications during birth. Many have complained about not feeling heard by doctors when it comes to preferences for birth positions, being given pain medication, or personal concerns about their health.
“In 2018, it was reported that the death rate in Kentucky was two times the national rate,” said Lecresha Sewell, APRN at Norton Women’s Health.
This means that in the commonwealth, the rate of death for Black women during childbirth was 40 per 100,000 births compared to the national average of 17 per 100,000. While Norton’s numbers are below the national average, that racial disparity is why Sewell, Bland and other creators of the program have chosen west Louisville as its starting point.
Norton Women’s Health plans to hire three doulas by September 2021, and hospital officials say they will be able to serve 140 patients and be on call for any emergency doula services the hospital may need.
Though doulas are not medical professionals, they can accompany patients through every step of pregnancy, including prenatal appointments, labor and delivery, and postpartum visits. Doulas serve as a source of information, support and advocacy, facilitate communication with doctors, and help promote bonding once the baby is born.
Norton’s doula program is being funded in part by a $250,000 gift Aetna Better Health of Kentucky donated to the Norton Children’s Hospital Foundation.