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VP of Health Company Talks Maternal Health Crisis at Harvard Data Science Initiative

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Isabel Fulcher, vice president of data science at Delfina and former postdoctoral fellow at the Harvard Data Science Initiative, discussed the maternal health crisis and what Delfina is doing to combat it at a talk held by HDSI Thursday.

Delfina is an app that uses data analytics to predict and improve maternal health care. The app works by collecting key metrics like mood, symptoms, weight, and blood pressure to help predict complications for pregnant mothers. It also provides mothers with educational materials and information about future appointments to guide them through their pregnancy.

Fulcher opened by introducing the scale of increasing maternal mortality.

“We’ve seen the maternal mortality ratio nearly double from 2018 to 2021,” she said.

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Fulcher highlighted geographic barriers, specifically “maternal care deserts,” where there is no access to prenatal or delivery-related care. She then talked about the significant relationship between maternal mortality and race, citing a “higher rate of maternal mortality among non-Hispanic black individuals.”

Fulcher described her experience at HDSI that led her to pursue maternal health care.

“I got involved with a digital maternal health program that was functioning in Zanzibar,” Fulcher said. “It was delivering pregnancy care through community health workers to all women in Zanzibar that were pregnant.”

Fulcher discussed the process of using a machine learning algorithm to extract pregnancy data and make health-related predictions. She said it would provide “tailored care” that would mitigate negative health outcomes.

While addressing the challenges in maternal health care, Fulcher emphasized the crucial role of accurate and comprehensive data. She said that many existing datasets are incomplete or biased, leading to gaps in care, especially for marginalized communities.

“Once we have these models, we need to think about deploying them in practice, and to do that we often need to close significant data gaps that we’re presented with,” she said.

“We’ve been getting creative with our data sources,” she added.

Fulcher also mentioned the importance of interdisciplinary collaboration, saying she has “worked extensively with clinicians and health officials in the U.S. and Tanzania to improve access to quality reproductive health care.”

Fulcher discussed the challenges of implementing such technology in low-resource settings.

“There might not be resources for intervention delivery, so even if there’s a known intervention that might reduce the risk, let’s say, of postpartum depression, the resources might not be there to actually deliver that intervention,” Fulcher said. “Specific types of group counseling during the prenatal period have been shown to reduce the risk of postpartum depression, but patients might not have access to those resources to get those group classes.”

In her closing remarks, Fulcher discussed the ongoing work Delfina is doing to mitigate current issues with maternal health care.

“We can start by preventing complications by intervening early in pregnancy, reducing disparities by serving unique patient needs — meeting patients where they are, getting them the resources to actually engage, break down some of those barriers — and then close these data gaps,” she said.

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