Emory, Morehouse School of Medicine to establish Maternal Health Research Center of Excellence | Emory University

ATLANTA – The National Institutes of Health (NIH) has selected researchers from Morehouse School of Medicine (MSM) and Emory University’s Rollins School of Public Health and School of Medicine to partner on the creation of a Maternal Health Research Center of Excellence.

 The MSM and Emory partnership is one of 10 research centers nationwide chosen for the NIH initiative aimed at developing and evaluating innovative approaches to reduce pregnancy-related complications and deaths, while also promoting maternal health equity. 

 According to the NIH, tens of thousands of Americans experience pregnancy-related complications each year that can increase the risk of future health concerns, including high blood pressure, diabetes and mental health conditions. Stark disparities exist in these maternal health outcomes by racial and ethnic group, age, education, socioeconomic status and geographic region. 

The 10 centers of excellence – in collaborations with an implementation science hub and a data innovation and coordinating hub – will design and implement research projects to better understand the biological, behavioral, environmental, sociocultural and structural factors that affect pregnancy-related complications and deaths. They will focus on populations that experience health disparities, including racial and ethnic minorities, socioeconomically disadvantaged populations, those living in underserved rural areas, sexual and gender minority populations and people with disabilities.

As part of this initiative, MSM and Emory researchers will collaborate with a robust network of community partners to launch the Center to Advance Reproductive Justice and Behavioral Health among Black Pregnant/Postpartum Women and Birthing People (CORAL). CORAL’s mission will be to help Black women survive and thrive while pregnant and postpartum, by translating maternal behavioral health research and interventions into action.

“In close partnership with Black women and the organizations that serve them, CORAL will help reduce Black maternal morbidity and mortality by generating community-driven, multilayered evidence and interventions to support Black women’s maternal behavioral health, thus helping to end longstanding neglect of these intertwined crises, and the pernicious legacy of excluding Black women from related research,” says Natalie D. Hernandez, PhD, executive director of MSM’s Center for Maternal Health Equity.

Hannah L.F. Cooper, ScD, the Rollins Chair in Substance Use Disorders Research at Emory’s Rollins School of Public Health, says maternal behavioral health conditions – such as anxiety, perinatal and postpartum depression, and birth-related PTSD – are the most common complications of pregnancy and childbirth, affecting 1 in 5 women in the U.S., and disproportionately afflict Black women.

“Pregnant and postpartum women who are Black live at the intersection of three of the gravest public health threats confronting the United States in the 21st century: the maternal morbidity and mortality epidemic, the behavioral health crisis; and intersectional discrimination,” says Cooper, adding Black women are three times more likely to die while pregnant or postpartum than their White counterparts.

“CORAL will generate actionable evidence about the multilayered determinants of maternal behavioral health conditions in close and equitable partnerships with Black women, and the community-based organizations that serve them, with the goal of ending the maternal behavioral health crisis in Georgia and beyond.”

The NIH is awarding a total of $24 million in first-year funding to establish the centers as part of its Implementing a Maternal health and PRegnancy Outcomes Vision for Everyone (IMPROVE) initiative. The grants are expected to last seven years and total an estimated $168 million.

Anne Dunlop, MD, professor and director of clinical research in the Department of Gynecology and Obstetrics at Emory University School of Medicine, says it is significant that one of the centers of excellence will be in Georgia, which has some of the nation’s highest and most racially disparate rates of maternal mortality and mortality.

“While we have some data around factors that contribute to the high rates of poor maternal health in Georgia, there remain significant gaps in our understanding. Maternal behavioral health, especially among Black women, has been woefully understudied and under addressed,” Dunlop says. “This NIH funding recognizes the long-standing commitment (of Emory and Morehouse School of Medicine) to collaborate with one another and with community-based organizations and will allow us to undertake work that offers substantial promise for improving Black maternal behavioral health in Georgia.”

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