By Christina Orlovsky
For many mothers-to-be, pregnancy is a time of excitement and anticipation as they eagerly await the arrival of their newborn baby. However, for many more people it is also a time of uncertainty, fear and unanswered questions. This is especially true in diverse communities in the United States – the only developed country whose maternal death rate has steadily risen in recent decades. In fact, the most recent CDC statistics show that there was 20.1 maternal deaths per 100,000 live births in 2019, a significant increase from 17.4 the previous year.
This grim statistic is also accompanied by further data showing differences between racial and ethnic groups, with black, American Indian, and Alaskan Native 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 diverse populations in maternal care research to reduce these inequalities and improve outcomes for pregnant people of all races and ethnicities.
That’s where PowerMom comes into play. An innovative smartphone app-based research project conducted by Scripps Research, a leading research institution in the biomedical sciences, PowerMom was born from a commitment to transform medical research through digital data. A community for a community, PowerMom’s mission is to discover patterns in healthy pregnancies and find answers to questions moms (and moms-to-be) have about their bodies and their growing babies. With the help of thousands of research participants, PowerMom aims to answer important questions about what makes a healthy pregnancy for the diverse pregnant population in an effort to ensure the health and well-being of all mothers and babies for generations to come.
Here, Tolúwalàṣé (Laṣé) Ajayi, MD, FAAP, PowerMom’s principal investigator, shares what inspired her passion for this powerful research and how PowerMom is committed to equal opportunities in maternity care for all pregnant people.
Q: What inspired you to research maternal health?
LA: This was a personal passion project of mine. When I was pregnant with my first daughter in 2017, I learned from experience how different every pregnancy can be for everyone. Because of my background in pediatrics, I am also well aware of the health disparities that occur within maternity care, and even how I was treated with my own pregnancy. Again, I am a pediatrician. I work in a healthcare institution. I was cared for in my own institution, and I was blatantly discriminated against. I had no outlet. I felt that although I was educated and at home in this population, I had no instrument to make myself heard. I realized that PowerMom can be such a powerful tool to really collect data so we can have healthy pregnancies for everyone.
Q: What are some of the differences that currently exist in research and only in pregnant women in general?
LA: There are a few. With research in general, we know that there is a big difference in who is funded to do clinical trials. There is a big difference in the type of principal investigators selected based on racial, ethnic, and LGBTQ backgrounds. Those who get funded to do clinical studies and those who conduct the clinical studies really influence who goes on to enroll in clinical studies in general. The result is a disparity between the population conducting the study and then those who actually participate in the study.
Q: How does this affect pregnant women in general?
LA: In general, pregnant people weren’t included in research because we were seen as — and I say “we” because I just had my second daughter — a protected population. Finally, when you look at the differences within the types of pregnant people included in the survey, you see a large under-representation within black, Hispanic, Native American and other ethnic and racial minorities.
Q: How does PowerMom work to drive change in these key areas?
LA: PowerMom’s unique digital platform breaks down barriers to research access, allowing more people everywhere to participate. In this way, we can collect data – through surveys and data collected from wearable devices such as a Fitbit or Apple Watch – from various participants and build a community that is representative of a full spectrum of racial and ethnic groups. In this way we put the participant at the center and meet him where he is. When a participant sees that an investigation is aimed at and for them, they are more likely to become involved. They are more likely to bring their data forward and be included as they are seen as partners and equals in the study.
Q: How does all this empower pregnant people?
LA: We empower women with their data. We provide them with a tool that they can share with their healthcare provider and say, “This is different.” We give them a record that they can track their baseline and their changes. It’s a tool that allows them to advocate for themselves and actually have a conversation. By having that conversation, they not only help educate themselves, but also help their caregivers get educated. They help healthcare providers say, “You know what? Maybe the way we do these things isn’t the best way, or it’s not really a way that appeals to everyone. How can I change my practice so that I can really better serve my patients? to help?”
Q: How do you see PowerMom growing in the future?
LA: Right now PowerMom is mainly observational: collecting data, looking at what works, how we can approach women and what is happening in women’s lives. Next I want to enable PowerMom to do interventions. So how can we use technology to tackle things like preeclampsia? How can we use interventions to reduce gestational diabetes, treat pregnancy-induced hypertension, and then intervene to treat these conditions earlier? I see PowerMom growing there in the near future.
Christina Orlovsky is a medical copywriter for Scripps Research. She specializes in creating health-related content and has over 2 decades of experience in feature writing, marketing and copywriting for national print and online publications and healthcare institutions.
In partnership with WebMD, PowerMom is a smartphone app-based study that allows expectant mothers to share data about their pregnancy with scientists. For more information or to register for PowerMom, visit
This article is part of WebMD/Medscape’s Contribution Program, which allows people and organizations outside of WebMD/Medscape to submit articles for consideration on our sites. Have an idea for a submission? Email us at [email protected].
Photo courtesy of Scripps
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