Despite substantial advances in healthcare over the past few decades, maternal health remains a major concern for West Virginia. The Rural Partners Network’s Southern West Virginia Community Network (SWVCN) has joined together with the Texas A&M University Rural and Community Health Institute (RCHI) to work across the 12 southernmost counties to identify local maternal health care needs and create a plan to extend care in the area.
Limited healthcare access has been consistently elevated as a concern to the SWVCN partners. This is an issue that’s affected by a lack of transportation, the opioid crisis and decreasing facilities and one that impacts not only the health and wellness of the communities, but also the economic mobility of the whole region.
“The Maternal Health Project Meetings were very important because 49.1 percent of the West Virginia counties are considered maternity care deserts compared to 32.6 percent in the United States,” said Lisa Lewis, Interim Director of the West Virginia State Office of Rural Health. “Maternal health care is vital for mothers and babies. It is crucial to ensure that the maternal health care system is accessible which can positively affect health outcomes for both mothers and babies.”
Funded through the USDA Rural Development and The Health Resources & Services Administration (HRSA), this project consists of assessment and planning phases that will guide local and regional stakeholders in implementing new options for providing prenatal care in Southern West Virginia.
“The benefit of this project is to evaluate and identify the maternal health care needs in each area to increase access to care which may reduce pregnancy-related complications and increase healthy pregnancies,” said Lewis.
This project is currently in the assessment and data gathering phase. With a projected 18-month span, the RCHI Maternal Health Project Team traveled to Southern West Virginia in early November 2023 where they hosted regional provider, stakeholder, and community discussion forums. The purpose of these discussions, held in Lincoln, Summers, and Mercer counties, was to gather critical insights from health care professionals, state and local agencies and organizations, patient advocates, and regional leaders on the challenges specific to their region and to hear about the dedicated work already in place to support maternal health needs.
“The RCHI team had a very successful series of onsite meetings over several days,” said Dr. Kia Parsi, Executive Director of RCHI. “It is clear from these evaluations that there are multiple community stakeholders and leaders that are motivated about and engaged in maternal care needs in Southern West Virginia. Like most rural communities, there are gaps in care. The in-person meetings helped to gain knowledge of any deficiencies in maternal health care needs available in each area. There were several very insightful discussions that took place and I feel that the information that was gathered can assist with deficiencies that were identified in addition to providing resources that many may not be aware of.”
This project has made significant progress in the past few months. The next steps include analyzing the discussion outcomes to identify key priorities, reviewing secondary data, and scheduling follow-up interviews with interested stakeholders that were unable to attend the discussion forums. Outreach activities are planned through early to mid-2024 and will result in a presentation of findings to be shared widely with our regional and community partners for feedback and review. These findings will serve as a foundation for local and regional level recommendations and action planning and will help connect communities with resources available through the SWVCN for implementation of local maternal health initiatives.
When asked about next steps and his hopes for this project, Dr. Parsi added, “I am confident that our collaboration with communities, health care providers, non-profit and state organizations through the USDA Southern West Virginia Community Network, will result in an action plan to improve the care of pregnant mothers across the region. As a spectator, I was able to see things from the providers perspective and the community perspective. I am very excited to see the results of the project and happy I was able to participate and to connect with new individuals.”
Ultimately, the goal is not just to improve maternal health in Southern West Virginia, but to create a guiding framework that can assist other communities and regions throughout the United States in their efforts to expand maternal care access. By working together with the community, healthcare providers, and other stakeholders, we hope to make a meaningful and lasting difference on maternal health in Southern West Virginia and throughout the United States.