Credit: Daquella manera on Flickr, under Creative Commons (CC BY 2.0).

(WOMENS ENEWS) –Hundreds of public health leaders and service providers convened in Washington, D.C., this week at an annual conference aimed at strategizing ways to improve the health of mothers and infants and to effectively tackle the rising maternal mortality rate in the U.S.

The four-day conference, hosted by the Association of Maternal & Child Health Programs, called AMCHP, provided a forum for federal and state officials and leaders to discuss  policy, systems, services and quality of care.
Last year also saw stepped up efforts by the Health Resources and Services Administration’s Maternal and Child Health Bureau to aggressively push for a renewed focus on preventing the deaths of mothers with the launch of the National Maternal Health Initiative. 
During one of the workshops, Dr. Keisher Highsmith of the Maternal and Child Health Bureau, explained that the new program is intended to reduce maternal morbidity (harm due to being pregnant) and mortality (death due to being pregnant) by improving women’s health across the life course and by ensuring high quality and safety of maternity care. The initiative includes several workgroups. Among them, the state and community public health systems workgroup is co-chaired by AMCHP. 
Several attendees also attributed the increased focus on maternal health and the life-course perspective to the 2011 appointment of Dr. Michael Lu, an obstetrician and gynecologist, as associate administrator of the Maternal and Child Health Bureau. In addition, in light of the rising maternal mortality, many practitioners and academics have concluded that too little emphasis has been placed on maternal care while the nation focused on the reduction of infant mortality.
AMCHP advocates at the federal level for programs, which include the Title V Maternal and Child Health Services Block Grant. The block grant is the only federal program devoted to improving the health of all women, children and families, providing funding to state maternal and child health programs.  This block grant has shrunk by $91 million in funding since 2003.  In 2011, more than 44 million women and children were served by programs supported through the grant.
Although many sessions focused on improving birth outcomes and assessing the impact of the Affordable Care Act, this year’s conference emphasized that mothers do matter and officials do want to find out where and why pregnancy-related deaths occur. 
One workshop highlighted the successes of state initiatives to strengthen maternal death review processes in the U.S. Iowa, Wisconsin, Michigan and Illinois are among the states that have comprehensive maternal mortality surveillance systems.
David Goodman, an epidemiologist from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, briefed attendees on an assessment of maternal death reviews from different states. The findings will be published in the Journal of Women’s Health in May. He acknowledged that the lack of system-wide standards to track deaths is a problem and mentioned the formation of the Maternal Mortality Initiative. It’s a partnership with the CDC’s Division of Reproductive Health, the National Center for Health Statistics and AMCHP.
Another session focused on enhancing racial and ethnic heath care equity through group prenatal care, also known as centered pregnancy. Centered pregnancy is a model of care where 8 to 12 women with similar due dates meet for 10 sessions throughout their pregnancyies and early postpartum. 
The practitioner completes the standard physical assessments within the group space and there is no waiting time. Sharon Schindler Rising of the Centering Healthcare Institute, Julie Solomon of   J. Solomon Consulting and Elizabeth Riggs of the March of Dimes discussed a recruitment and retention program aimed at African American mothers in an effort to reduce preterm births. The study sites included Chicago, Savannah Ga., Montgomery, Ala.,Washington, D.C., and Edison, N.J.