For many expectant mothers, pregnancy is a time of excitement and anticipation as they eagerly await the arrival of their newborn. For many others, however, it is also a time of uncertainty, anxiety and unanswered questions. This is especially true in various communities across the United States – the only developed country whose maternal mortality rates have been steadily rising over the past decades. In fact, the latest CDC statistics show that in 2019, there were 20.1 maternal deaths per 100,000 live births, which is significantly more than 17.4 in the previous year.
This grim statistic is also accompanied by additional data showing differences between racial and ethnic groups, with black, Native American, and Alaskan women being two to three times more likely to die from pregnancy-related causes than white women. They are disproportionately affected by pregnancy complications such as preeclampsia, pregnancy-induced hypertension, and gestational diabetes. These inequalities underscore the need to involve different populations in research on maternal care in order to reduce these disparities and improve outcomes for pregnant women of all races and ethnic groups.
That’s where PowerMom comes into play. An innovative research study based on a smartphone app conducted by Scripps Research, a leading research institution in the biomedical sciences, PowerMom was born out of a commitment to transforming medical research through digital data. Community-to-community, PowerMom’s mission is to uncover patterns in healthy pregnancies and uncover answers to questions moms (and expectant moms) have about their bodies and growing babies. With the help of thousands of research participants, PowerMom seeks to answer important questions about what constitutes a healthy pregnancy for a diverse population of pregnant women in an effort to ensure the health and well-being of all moms and babies for generations to come.
Here, Tolúwalàṣé (Laṣé) Ajayi, MD, FAAP, lead researcher for PowerMom, shares what inspired her passion for this powerful research and how PowerMom strives to help achieve equality in maternity care for all pregnant women.
Q: What inspired you to research maternal health?
LA: This was my personal passionate project. When I was pregnant with my first daughter in 2017, I learned from experience how different each pregnancy can be for everyone. Also, because of my experience in pediatrics, I am also aware of the health differences that occur in pregnancy care and even the way I was treated in my own pregnancy. Again, I am a pediatrician. I work in a health facility. I received care at my own institution and was obviously discriminated against. I didn’t have an outlet. I felt that although I was educated and versed in this population, I did not have the tools to allow me to be heard. I realized that PowerMom can be such a powerful tool for real data collection so we can have healthy pregnancies for everyone.
Q: What are some of the differences that are currently occurring in research and only in pregnant women at large?
LA: There are a couple. Given extensive research, we know that there is a big difference in who gets funding to conduct clinical studies. There is a large disparity in the type of principal investigators selected from racial, ethnic and LGBTQ backgrounds. Those who are funded to do clinical studies and those who conduct clinical studies really influence who then enrolls in clinical studies at all. The result is inequality within the population conducting the study, and then those who actually participate in the research.
Q: How does this affect pregnant women in general?
LA: In general, pregnant women were not included in the study because we were seen as – and I say “we” because I just got my second daughter – a protected population. Finally, when you look at the differences within the types of pregnant women included in the study, you see a large underrepresentation within blacks, Latinos, Indians, and other ethnic and racial minorities.
Q: How is PowerMom working on change in these important areas?
LA: PowerMom’s unique digital platform breaks down barriers to accessing research, allowing more people to participate from anywhere. In this way, we can collect data – through surveys and data collected from wearable devices such as Fitbit or Apple Watch – from different participants and build a community that represents the full spectrum of racial and ethnic groups. In this way, we put the participant in the first place – meeting him where he is. When a participant sees that the study is aimed at them and for them, they are more likely to engage. They are more likely to want to present their data and be involved because they are viewed as partners and as equals within the study.
Q: How does all this empower pregnant women?
LA: We empower women with our data. We provide them with tools they can share with their healthcare professionals and say, “This is different.” We give them records so they can track their initial value and changes. It’s a tool that allows them to stand up for themselves and actually talk. With this conversation, they not only help themselves to be educated, but also help to educate their health professionals. They help healthcare professionals say, “You know what? Maybe the way we do these things isn’t the best way, or it’s not really the way to address everyone. How can I change my practice so it can actually help my patients better?”
Q: How do you see PowerMom growing in the future?
LA: Right now, PowerMom is mostly observational: it collects data, sees what works, how we can approach women, and what happens in women’s lives. Next, I would like to encourage PowerMom to do interventions. How then can we use technology to deal with things like preeclampsia? How can we use interventions to reduce gestational diabetes, to treat hypertension caused by pregnancy, and then intervene in the treatment of these conditions earlier? This is where I see PowerMom growing in the near future.
Christina Orlovsky is a medical copywriter for Scripps Research. She specializes in creating content related to health and has more than 2 decades of experience in writing articles, marketing and writing texts for national print and online publications and health organizations.
In collaboration with WebMD, PowerMom is a research study based on a smartphone app that allows expectant mothers to share data about their pregnancies with scientists. For more information or to enroll in PowerMom visit
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