Empowering Mothers to Save Lives

Translational Health

Eating right, keeping active and regular checkups are all classic advice for good prenatal health, but according to Melinda Villagran, Director of Texas State University’s Translational Health Research Initiative, the best prescription for improving maternal health is not healthcare per se, but communication.

With a grant from St. David’s Foundation, Dr. Villagran is investigating “the extent to which negative social determinants of health can be reduced through social support and collaboration among women in a local area,” but rather than merely studying the problem, Villagran is helping lead the fight to solve it.

13.4%: Maternal mortality/morbidity rate for African American mothers in Hays County

Villagran started Networx, a nonprofit organization that connects mothers and babies in Hays and Caldwell counties with local free and low-cost services and resources, in order to address a maternal health crisis in Central Texas.

According to recent data, rates of maternal mortality and morbidity (life-threatening conditions such as hemorrhage, eclampsia or infection) are high here, comparable to the rates in less developed countries. The data on African American pregnancies in Hays and Caldwell counties is particularly alarming: more than 13 percent result in maternal mortality or morbidity, regardless of factors like socioeconomic status or education — three times the rate for Caucasians.

African American newborns are also much more likely to have low birth-weight, a key indicator of poor maternal health and predictor of poor infant health. In response to this data, and statewide data showing that 80 percent of maternal mortality in Texas is preventable, St. David’s Foundation funded a cohort of nine grantees, including Networx, to research and improve local maternal health. 

4 out of 5 pregnancy-related deaths in Texas are preventable

According to Villagran, when the maternal health data was publicized, “We had a lack of services and healthcare for women and babies in Hays County, but also, perhaps more importantly in terms of what I could do to affect change, we had a lack of communication.” The Networx strategy includes communicating directly with families through a weekly text message service called Mama Mail.

Each Mama Mail newsletter shares local resources, focusing on primary social determinants of health: food, healthcare, healthy relationships, fitness, financial and other resources (such as diaper banks), and education (such as breastfeeding classes). These resources are life-saving for many families, but particularly for African American and Latinx families, who have a poverty rate three times higher than their Caucasian counterparts.

1 in 3: In some parts of Caldwell County, nearly 1/3 of mothers experience serious maternal morbidity events

Parent support group

Abbi Mott, Program Coordinator of the Networx grant, says, “Sometimes people think health only happens in hospitals,” but the Networx text messaging model recognizes that health has to happen where people are.

Villagran explains, “Everybody knows Coke is not the healthiest thing in the world, but we all drink Coke because it’s where we are when we’re thirsty, every time. You don’t have to create a new system and a new habit and download a new app to get a Coke. I want to be like Coke. I want Networx to be everywhere that people are who need the kinds of things that we can do, and to be there just in time to do it with them. That’s the mindset. Integrating.”

3x: percentage of African American/Latinx kids living in poverty in Hays County, compared to non-Latinx Caucasian kids

In addition to communicating directly with parents, Networx has integrated with local service providers who, in the past, were often unaware of local resources available to their clients. Networx’s symbiotic relationships with community partners include Hays County agencies — Central Texas WIC, Little Lambs Ministries, and Central Texas Medical Center Full Circle Community, for example — as well as Texas State University programs such as the Pregnancy, Education, and Parenting program for teen parents. These partners appreciate the way Networx prioritizes ease of access, because new parents are often overwhelmed, exhausted and easily deterred from accessing services.

Mott says, “If I find a resource on the internet, I call before I list it, because I want to make sure it’s a real thing, it’s accessible, and it’s not a bait-and-switch. I vet the resources and events we feature so I can give all the information — the hours, address, who they need to talk to — so we can make it really easy.” 

1,000: estimated number of parents accessing Networx newsletters

hays Caldwell map

This strategy is working. Mama Mail already has more than 250 subscribers, and due to distribution by community partners and through the website the newsletters are reaching an estimated 1,000 parents.

Although the research grant from St. David’s will wrap up at the end of 2019, Villagran says, “Part of our model is that we didn’t build something that will go away when the grant goes away. The relationships and pipelines will exist, and will be sustainable by others even if we were not to continue, because it may not be flashy, but it makes sense.”

This continuity is important to Villagran because it’s clear that “We are having an impact. When we reach out to women, for them to know there’s someone out there trying to help them really matters.”

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