Maternal death rate climbing, experts warn

- Labor and delivery: It's often one of the most advanced, high-tech, and safest units at most U.S. hospitals, yet there's a growing and disturbing trend.   

"We outspend a lot of developed countries and yet when it comes to childbirth, we're not doing as well," warned Dr. Judette Louis, a maternal-fetal expert at the University of South Florida College of Medicine.

The U.S. has the highest maternal death rate of any developed nation in the world and, for most of the country, the rates are increasing.  The leading cause of death used to be high blood pressure and bleeding or hemorrhage.  These days it's heart disease. 

"Women are coming into pregnancy less healthy than they were in the past. And because they are less healthy, it's contributing to them dying during childbirth," Dr. Louis continued. 

Women giving birth later in life may be part of the reason.  Increasing age increases the risk of chronic diseases like diabetes and hypertension.

"During pregnancy, your blood volume goes up, your heart volume goes up. Many people have called pregnancy a period of time that is a stress test on our body," she explained. 

Better therapy can lessen that stress. 

"You take those who died, about 80 percent of them have a clinical factor that may have helped make that pregnancy go better," offered Dr. William Sappenfield, the director of the Chiles Center at the University of South Florida.  

Dr. Sappenfield analyzes pregnancy-related deaths for the collaborative Florida statewide medical network hoping to cut death rates in half.  It starts with training a response team.

"If you don't practice and get experience of who knows what to do what when, you're going to miss an opportunity to help that woman," Sappenfield said. 

Only 45 of 115 hospitals providing delivery services in Florida are part of the collaborative.  Some hospitals don't have the resources to respond to emergencies. 

"A lot of places are not ready to deal with it. They're not equipped to deal with it. And we particularly see this in small hospitals," Dr. Louis said.   

But minimizing the odds that you'll need that level of care is something that can begin before conception. 

"I think, as a mother, you have to do your part and come into pregnancy at a normal weight.  If you have medical conditions, you need to see a doctor before you get pregnant so they can basically come up with a plan with you on how to improve your health," Dr. Louis added. 

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