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NC gets millions for ambitious study to reduce health disparities during pregnancy

North Carolina researchers have received $21 million to study strategies for preventing hypertension during pregnancy, a leading cause of maternal death that disproportionately impacts Black Americans.

The grant from the Patient-centered Outcomes Research Institute is one of several large research investments the nonprofit made to study how to close glaring disparities in maternal health in the United States.

The North Carolina-based research, named the Thriving Hearts study, will specifically target disorders related to high blood pressure, called hypertensive disorders in pregnancy or HDPs, which can cause a number of serious complications like heart attack or stroke if left uncontrolled.

Earlier this year, a News & Observer analysis found that North Carolina’s maternal mortality rate was higher than the U.S. overall and that Black North Carolinians are more than twice as likely as white women to die from pregnancy-related complications.

In 10 counties in central North Carolina, the study will launch several programs that take different approaches to reducing high blood pressure in pregnant people.

In one program, prenatal clinics will provide pregnant people at risk of developing hypertension kits with a home blood pressure monitor, a list of tips about monitoring blood pressure and a bottle of low-dose aspirin, which can help prevent HDP.

Those patients also have the option to receive regular text messages with tips and reminders for preventing high blood pressure.

Another program will run workshops to help reduce burnout in the health care workforce, in the hopes that improving their well-being will, in turn, improve the care of their patients.

Other funding will be used to bolster the work of community health workers, who will reach out to pregnant people and connect them with local health resources.

The research team plans to contact about 10,000 people over the course of the five-year study to survey their experience with the program. They will also use hospital records, insurance claims and birth certificates to measure whether high blood pressure declined for those who participated in the study.

Dr. Nakela Cook, the executive director of the nonprofit funding this research, said they required their grant recipients to be an equal collaboration between a research institution and a community organization.

“Community organizations can provide critical insights into the often complex root causes of health issues in the populations that we’re trying to serve,” she said. “While research institutions help ensure the scientific rigor of the research that’s funded.”

The Thriving Hearts study will be co-led by Dr. Alison Stuebe from UNC Chapel Hill and Quintana Stewart from the Orange County Health Department.

The rest of the research team comprises doctors, doulas, dieticians, social workers, local health department staff, and women who have experienced hypertension during pregnancy, among others.

Teddy Rosenbluth covers science and health care for The News & Observer in a position funded by Duke Health and the Burroughs Wellcome Fund. The N&O maintains full editorial control of the work.

Pregnancy can be risky in the US. In North Carolina, the threat of death is even higher.

Pregnancy can be risky in the US. In North Carolina, the threat of death is even higher.