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Consider the Source: A new voice for maternity care reform, J.D. Kleinke

March 14th, 2011 by avatar

I get a particular kind of delight when I learn about someone who is willing to speak out about U.S. maternity care and yet isn’t the typical stakeholder. You might know the type I’m talking about: not a midwife or a doctor or an activist for any agenda, not someone who was harmed or transformed by their birth, not a spokesperson for a particular agency or professional society – just someone willing to look at our system, intelligently analyze its shortcomings, and be bold about how we could transform it into a system that reliably delivers humane, high-quality care.

A few months ago, I was introduced to J.D. Kleinke. It didn’t take me much time on Google to figure out that J.D. is exactly this kind of non-stakeholder. Turns out he’s a non-stakeholder with tremendous insight and influence. A health economist and health IT pioneer, he’s well known in health care reform and technology circles. He’s also an accomplished and prolific writer, with two health economics text books and articles in just about every major health care publication under his belt. But none of those publications has taken on maternity care specifically – until now.  And instead of writing a health economics text, he’s delivered a drama-packed, beautifully crafted novel, Catching Babies, published this month by Fourth Chapter Books. (Disclosure: I received a complimentary review copy.) I know the readers of this blog will be interested in the book. Even more so, I think you’ll be eager to hear more from this new voice for maternity care system reform.

Fortunately, there are plenty of opportunities to do so. J.D. will be making the rounds on the blogs this week – visiting The Unnecesarean, Birthing Beautiful Ideas, Birth Sense, and Mom’s Tinfoil Hat to discuss the themes in his book and the lessons it holds for “real life”. And next week, J.D. and I will be tackling the issues on stage together at the Health 2.0 conference. Watch for tweets, blogs and videos coming out of that meeting.

Let’s kick things off with an interview.

Amy Romano: J.D., in the author’s note at the beginning of Catching Babies, you say that you set out to write a non-fiction collection of case studies addressing conflicts and controversies in the field of women’s health. Instead, you ended up writing a novel about the personal and professional drama of a cadre of ob-gyn residents near the end of their training. How did this process unfold?

J.D. Kleinke: I was living among a group of OB/GYNs as they were going through their residency, right when the non-fiction rudiments of Catching Babies were coming together in my mind. As with many residents in any specialty, they would talk incessantly about their workloads, especially about their weirder cases. As they did, I could not help but notice that the most dramatic and interesting elements of each story were not the specific clinical details, but the emotional reactions of the physicians themselves. Fascination, revulsion, contempt, pathos, cynicism, wonder, ridicule, dread. The wide variety and raw intensity of their responses to what they were dealing with in the hospital every day were often counter-intuitive, sometimes shocking to me, and I noticed how these reactions started to pattern around the personalities and family histories of the physicians themselves. Some OBs tended to respond to the most emotionally difficult cases with fascination and compassion, others with a cynicism or blitheness that bordered on cruelty. After enough watching and listening, I started to notice a strange binomial distribution among the ones I knew most personally: one group were deeply empathic people making enormous sacrifices – they were what we would call heroes and, in a couple cases, martyrs. Another group were cold, mean, vindictive, really nasty – the sort of people who were plenty smart and technically capable – but I wouldn’t want them delivering my dog’s puppies. Oddest of all, there was no middle ground. This is the exact opposite of the bell curve of personality and temperament you tend to find within almost all other groups of professionals, including most other medical, if not surgical, specialties. And people who tend toward the extremes of heroism and callowness make for good drama!

Amy: Your novel begins during the main characters’ final year of residency and ends after they’ve all dispersed into private practice, fellowships, and other post-residency adventures. Why did you choose this particular time frame for your story?

J.D.: Great question. This precise year is the key inflection point in the life of any physician. It’s the moment of truth for everyone leaving years of school and facing their options out there in the big bad world. You’ve been studying, training, amassing debt, living on subsistence wages, and solidifying your ideals for 12 or more years – and now it’s go-time. And your competing choices are hugely different. Are you going to try to cash in as big as you can? Hunker down and try to advance the field? Try to take your already rarefied skills to the next level? Teach? Agitate? Or are you going to endure still another round of academic medicine to help the poor and desperate patients who stream without end into your teaching hospital? This is also the inflection point for doctors personally. Many have been postponing marriage, their own pregnancies, homeownership – in short, all the hallmarks of “growing up” – well into their 30s. And most of the OB/GYNs I’ve observed personally were hellbent on playing catch-up, often making terrible decisions and compromises in the process. This is also ripe for great drama: smart people with some of the most profoundly adult responsibilities in society who are, in a way, still arrested adolescents, thanks to 12 or more years of intense schooling and training.

Amy: One of your characters is an ob-gyn who wants to collaborate with home birth midwives to better integrate care during transfers. Just last month, ACOG released a new Committee Opinion that urges the development of integrated systems to optimize home birth outcomes. What do you see as the major opportunities or barriers when it comes to realizing the vision of integrated systems of care across birth settings?

J.D.: Let the record show – I thought of it first and I have drafts from Catching Babies going back to 2003 to prove it! Actually, it’s an idea whose time has been a long time coming. There is a groundswell of demand among American women to deliver at home – thanks in part to the hair-trigger interventions and often brutalizing processes I portray in Catching Babies – but thanks also to the same ethos emerging around the country regarding green energy, vegetarianism, organic food, recycling, local food sourcing, and generally trying to live a less toxic, less industrialized life – an enormous collective backlash against the technocratization of society. There is a growing number of women who believe that the traditional maternity care system has pathologized childbirth, and they want no part of it. Right or wrong, this is what they believe. There is, therefore, not just an opportunity, but an enormous responsibility for all of us to find ways to cope with their flight to homebirths, because homebirths are going to happen whether we like it or not. The barriers of course are enormous: medical, organizational, financial, legal, even criminal in some situations. Why? Because all elements of what is essentially not a health care system, but is really an “illness care system,” are elemental to the system for profound reasons, most of them ultimately economic. And they will not go away without an especially good fight because, in the home birth setting, the simple fact of the matter is that babies will die – a small number of babies who would not otherwise die had they been delivered in the hospitals, a few feet away from ventilators and the NICU. These cases are of course extreme outliers, as are those babies who die during delivery in the hospital. But we have a better safe than sorry system and culture, and that’s why homebirth will always be fighting a steep uphill battle. I am also just as aware of the thousands of other suboptimal birth outcomes of babies who are rushed through to delivery in the hospital who would have been just fine delivering at home. Unfortunately, the loudest sirens in our society – the lawyers, reporters, and politicians – don’t trade in population statistics, they don’t acknowledge trade-offs. They focus on the outlier, the tragedy of that one dead baby delivered at home – and probably would have died from the same problem in a hospital setting. But still, they focus on the reckless midwife, the random disaster that couldn’t have been prevented anyway. The biggest barrier to homebirth is the difficulty recognizing that the collective outcomes profile for homebirth – delivery complications, infection rates, rates of postpartum depression – is definitely different, and perhaps better for the population as a whole, but it will include an occasional travesty that a hospital setting may have avoided. Would the homebirth family have consented that? Will they honor their waiver of their right to sue? Doesn’t matter. There will always be an ambitious reporter, grandstanding local politician, or gutter-crawling attorney ready to re-write everyone’s intentions, and all the facts, when tragedy strikes.

Amy: You have been called “an advocate for a smarter, data-driven, post-partisan health care system.” What might this look like in the context of maternity care?

J.D.: Smarter and data-driven is easy, or at least easier than the “post-partisan” part! As applied to maternity care, a smarter, data-driven system would be fully armed from end-to-end with good clinical decision support systems specific to pregnancy, labor, delivery, and post-partum care. These systems would mobilize accurate, clinically detailed, risk-adjusted normative data about what works and doesn’t work for a very specific type of pregnancy – actually beginning with pre-pregnancy fertility, genomic and family data – and they would be parsable and analyzable up against accurate, clinically detailed, granular data about the pregnancy at hand. Hard as all that sounds to create and implement, we have now have systems like it in the ICU and for several medical specialties. Why not for maternity care? The “post-partisan” part – well, that is actually harder to imagine – because it would run headlong into much bigger problems than health care system problems. Look no further than the mindless screaming about birth control, abortion, gay marriage, or stem cell research, and you’ll realize that maternity care will never be free from the intrusions of partisan politics. This is actually one of the reasons I find the subject so interesting, and one of the reasons I wrote Catching Babies. Women’s health stands at ground zero for the entrenched ideology, zealotry, fear, and unconscious loathing of women’s sexuality that so clearly enrages many of America’s politicians and preachers. It is what drives people who otherwise claim to be “anti-Big Government” into all of our bedrooms, our marriages, and women’s health clinics, and they are not going to be off minding their own business any time soon.

Amy: Let’s close our eyes and imagine a time in the (hopefully not too distant) future when we can declare that the U.S. has achieved the 2020 Vision for a High Quality, High Value Maternity Care System. What was most critical to our success? What role did childbearing women themselves play in the transformation?

J.D.: I’m only a novelist – I don’t know if my imagination is that good! Everything that stands between us and that vision are precisely the same things standing between the rest of the American health care mess and a truly reformed, functional system. Maternity care is American health care in miniature, and fixing one on the most fundamental level is as hard as fixing the other. I suppose this is because, ultimately, the problems shared by the two are exactly the same. With childbirth, its just that much more maddening, because pregancy is not a disease, and yet the illness care system presumes that it is, and treats it like it is, and lo and behold, we end up with bad birth outcomes, many of which stem from nothing more than this erroneous orientation. That orientation is wrong in and of itself, whether it’s heart disease, mental illness, or maternity care, but that’s how the non-system was non-designed decades ago, when hospitals were places you went to die, not get better. Consistent with that tradition, our reimbursement is all wrong: providers are paid for more interventions, not better outcomes. And except in a few closed systems like Kaiser or Intermountain – and for only limited periods of time – we have no access to useful patient information, so many birth providers are either going on what the patient was able to report, or they are flying completely blind. What else? The tort system is a disaster and regardless of its actual direct impact, the perception of the size of this impact is caustic, divisive and counterproductive. And the evidence base for some of the most important things in maternity care is not great, and even where the evidence is great, findings are poorly disseminated or ignored. Certain practices are followed by birth providers for years – like the immediate cutting of the umbilical cord postpartum – when common sense and research has shown that delayed cutting is much better for the baby. Nonetheless, providers still do what they always did – because that’s how they always did it. The best ways to realize the vision you’re asking about is to stop treating maternity care – all medical care actually – like a folk art, arm all providers with better information, measure what they do, and radically realign the payment system to reflect those measurements. All else will fall into place. And to answer your last question, the single best way to make all that happen is to arm pregnant women with the same information. This is 2011 – we have the Internet now – no more excuses for paternalistic decision-making on behalf of passive patients. Patients should be encouraged to research and understand their bodies, pregnancies, birth choices, and intervention decision points – without interference, biases, or pressure from providers. Which brings us back to the home birth issue. This is a grassroots rebellion by women who are seeking to take back precisely this kind of control. Maybe they have over-corrected, if only because they felt so little control inside the traditional system, but their actions speak louder about maternity care in America than I ever could!

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Data: Come out, come out, wherever you are!

February 2nd, 2011 by avatar

Data can transform how maternity care is organized, delivered, and experienced.  I’ve written this before, and I think most of the readers of this blog would agree.

But data can’t do anything if it’s hiding.

Last year, I watched DHHS Secretary, Kathleen Sebelius, announce the Community Health Data Initiative and saw the results of the pilot phase. In just six weeks, developers took newly released or already available public data and created apps and visualizations that utterly transformed how I saw the future of health and public policy. I literally sat at the edge of my seat watching some of the demos.

Take, for example, this app from Palantir (prepare to have your mind blown)

With this tool, state and local policy makers can visualize the scope and intensity of the child poverty problem, see how child poverty relates to health conditions (in this example, teen pregnancy rates), map that data with the availability of services such as Boys and Girls Clubs, see what federal funding is available and where it has been targeted, identify the leaders on the ground, and see what they’re doing to address the issues. The tool, developed in just a matter of weeks and demoed in 11 minutes, “hopefully stops us from doing a 2 year survey of the area before we make any decisions.”

Then there’s Bing Health Search:

Just a few of the features: a patient searches for a hospital by name and quality and patient satisfaction data come up as part of the search results; a policy maker maps how food deserts correlate with diabetes rates (“a complex study is now reduced to an easy exercise”); or a person looking for real estate checks out local health indicators along with schools, taxes, and other data they might use to decide where to live.

(Interested in seeing more? Check out the Health 2.0 Gallery.)

Now it’s our turn.

Childbirth Connection has just partnered with Health 2.0 to issue the first challenge dealing with maternity care, with hopes of using this opportunity to translate the consensus vision of high-quality, high-value maternity care into action.

Our challenge:

Create a data visualization tool that demonstrates geographic variation in access, procedure use, outcomes, and/or costs in maternity care to galvanize state and regional action for quality improvement.

The winning team gets a cash prize of $2,500, a meet and greet with health economist and author J.D. Kleinke (whose remarkable blog post on induction was making the rounds yesterday), and the opportunity to demo their data visualization at the Health 2.0 meeting in San Diego in March.

The expected user is a state or local policy maker or advocate. What kind of visualization would you like to see?  What kinds of problems that might normally prompt policy makers to embark on a “2 year study” could be boiled down to an “easy exercise” with the right app? Share your wildest ideas in the comments. Or better yet – sign up to join a team!

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Putting the tools in the hands of women: Two new cesarean resources

September 12th, 2010 by avatar

Whether a woman is having her first baby or has already given birth, whether she is sitting in a prenatal appointment or in the midst of labor, if she is pregnant in the United States, there’s at least a 1 in 3 chance she will find herself hearing some version of the words, “You are going to need a c-section.”

Sometimes those words are spoken and heard with clear knowledge that cesarean is the only reasonable and safe option – a complete placenta previa or severe fetal distress in labor, for instance. But does every woman who hears these words really need a cesarean?  What if it’s a labor that seems to be going nowhere, or a fetal heart rate pattern that is not entirely reassuring, or something in the woman’s medical history that increases her risk slightly?

In these gray area cases, non-medical factors tend to influence decision-making. On the doctor or hospital side, it may be fear of malpractice, financial incentives, protocols, or impatience. On the woman’s side it could be her knowledge and values, her plans for future pregnancies, her own tolerance for risk, and her physical condition and support network that may profoundly affect postoperative recovery.

All “nonmedical factors” are not alike, however. Evidence suggests that factors on the physician and hospital side are exerting a much stronger influence than factors on the woman’s side.

How to correct this imbalance? Enter two new woman-centered tools to assist decision-making around cesareans.  I’m honored to have been involved in the development of both.

C-section Data from California WatchJust launched is a new resource from California Watch, a project of the Center for Investigative Journalism.  California Watch conducted an independent review of birth records from California hospitals and showed for the first time that for-profit hospitals have significantly higher c-section rates than not-for-profit hospitals, even when they are serving similar populations. As a companion to a powerful article that explains the findings, California Watch produced a set of “React and Act” tools that are available on their web site, including an open-access database of hospital c-section rates and related outcomes, an expert Q&A (with yours truly as the featured expert), and downloadable primers in English and Spanish for women to print and bring with them to their care provider’s office, childbirth class, or hospital tour.

vbac-primer-contributorAlso, if you haven’t already heard, Lamaze launched another consumer primer earlier this week.  A Woman’s Guide to VBAC: Navigating the NIH Consensus Recommendations addresses the most common and pressing questions women face when considering or planning a VBAC and all of the content is derived from the NIH Consensus Conference that was held last spring. It breaks down into understandable language the pros and cons of planned VBAC and planned repeat cesarean, how to make sense of prediction models and candidacy for VBAC, how the risks of VBAC stack up to other obstetric risks, the history of hospital “VBAC bans” and how to challenge them, the critical gaps in the research and how to make choices in spite of them, how to discuss options with a care provider, women’s legal rights and protections, and how to take action to improve VBAC access at the community level. (This resource is web-only for now, but we hope to have printed or print-friendly versions available very soon.)

Please pass these important tools to women and I’d love to hear from readers about how they can be incorporated into childbirth classes.

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Reply Turned Post, “Lights, Camera, Unnecesarean*!” Style

February 4th, 2010 by avatar

The Today Show, not known for their excellence in birth journalism, showed a live cesarean on air earlier this week. The birth advocacy community has weighed in on the shoddy reporting and the circumstances of the cesarean, pointing out that the stated indications (“big babies run in the family” and “she was past her due date”) do not in fact justify elective primary cesarean surgery.

When I heard that the cesarean had taken place at Beth Isreal Deaconess Medical Center in Boston, I had an “a-ha” moment: That’s the place where Paul Levy is President and CEO. And he has a blog. And his blog has been a sounding board for ideas about health care reform in general and transparency and practice variation in particular. I decided to leave a comment.

Here’s what I wrote about what I really think about the Red Sox the responsibility of hospital leadership to address problems in maternity care including the excess use of cesarean surgery.

I’m sure that the Today Show piece was just a convenient PR opportunity, but when I heard the birth occurred at BIDMC I came here to see what, if any, analysis you offered. Given your recent coverage of practice variation in endoscopies and hypertension treatment, it would seem this is a good opportunity to address practice variation in the use of cesarean surgery. Especially since just last week, a multi-stakeholder group released major recommendations for maternity care reform, which included many recommendations for reining in unwarranted practice variation.

Your hospital currently has the fourth highest cesarean rate in the state of Massachusetts (42%), 12 percentage points higher than the “normal range” (“25-30%”) reported by one of your OR staff during the Today Show piece, and nearly three times the rate recommended by the World Health Organization. True, your hospital cares for many women with high risk pregnancies, but studies that have looked at risk adjustments in cesarean rates have found that these adjustments make little to no difference in the rank order of hospital cesarean rates, and in fact many academic tertiary hospitals are able to safely maintain rates lower than those of community hospitals. The National Quality Foundation, Healthy People 2010, and, beginning in April when new perinatal measures are rolled out, the Joint Commission, all consider the rate of cesarean surgery in nulliparous women with singleton, head down babies (NTSV cesarean rate) to be a measure of hospital quality. You may have “Red Sox Nation plus 1″ but you now also have “NTSV cesarean rate plus one” – the woman who gave birth on the Today Show did not have an indication for cesarean delivery that is accepted by ACOG or any other standard-setting bodies. (Her indication was “big baby”.)

I urge you to use this opportunity to ask yourself and your staff what you could be doing better to safely lower your cesarean rate.

(BTW, Paul Batalden’s [whom Levy mentioned in a recent blog post about practice variation] daughter is a nurse-midwife (and a great one at that) so he might have some insights to share with you.)

After another commenter suggested that perhaps the circumstances of the cesarean were a private matter, I had more to say:

I agree that this isn’t an appropriate venue to share commentary about whether or not the televised c-section was appropriate. But as someone who cares deeply about maternity care safety and effectiveness, I often feel that people doing the heavy thinking about health care reform are completely oblivious to maternity care as a major area for improvement. So infrequently in health care debates do we hear about childbearing women or newborns, despite that 4.5 million women give birth each year, outcomes are poor, and hospital charges for maternity care far exceed those of other specialties. I have seen some coverage of maternity care issues on this blog, but the coverage seems to be out of proportion with how much “business” the maternity unit accounts for. That the current post about a televised birth was a lighthearted plug for the Red Sox, I have to admit, was extremely disappointing from my perspective. If we’re going to have a major surgery on live television with zillions of people watching, it seems a fine time to start talking about the procedure, under what circumstances it is safe, evidence-based indications for its use, and how to make sure every hospital is performing it to the highest standard of safety.

Just in the past week, there’s been a Joint Commission Sentinel Event Alert on maternal mortality, the major national reform recommendations I mentioned earlier, and today a front page article at the San Francisco Chronicle on the contribution of cesareans to California’s maternal mortality rate. Seems like there’s plenty of “blog fodder” other than the Red Sox angle.

Levy’s commitment to openness and transparency is unique in the hospital administration world and I support it wholeheartedly. I have to admit it felt like quite a thrill to leave a cogent comment on a blog of a hospital CEO. Even when I’ve worked for hospitals I never had that kind of access.  Of course listening doesn’t necessarily translate into doing. I hope that Levy recognizes that his hospital could be doing much better in their provision of maternity care to the community, begins documenting quality improvement efforts on his blog, and welcomes the input he receives from those of us who have thought quite a bit about what high-quality, high-value maternity care looks like and how to get there.

*Jill from The Unnecessarean coined this term.

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Lamaze International’s Recommendations for Preventing Maternal Deaths

January 27th, 2010 by avatar

JClogo

The Joint Commission Sentinel Alert #44: “Preventing Maternal Deaths” is an important document and public recognition that many of the maternal deaths in the United States are preventable. However, the alert is missing important and useful information for women and childbirth educators since the recommendations in the alert are downstream approaches or recommendations for how to save a woman from dying who may have been thrown in the river. It fails to alert our healthcare system about the need to keep women out of the river in the first place.

Let me give you some examples:

One Joint Commission recommendation is to consistently use techniques that have proven effective in the prevention of thromboembolism (blood clots) in women having surgical births. Clearly it is critical that we reduce the risks of surgery and this recommendation needs to be heeded. We need to make surgical births as safe as possible. However, if we eliminated the overuse of cesarean sections we would eliminate even more deaths and injuries. Based on publicly released data, the increase of cesarean surgical intervention is related to where a woman gives birth.

Debra Bingham, DrPH, RN, LCCE

Debra Bingham, DrPH, RN, LCCE

Indeed there is often as much as a three-fold variation in the number of surgical births performed at different hospitals even after adjusting for the woman’s age and risk factors. Reining in practice variation has been a focus of efforts to improve care in other healthcare specialties, yet wide and unwarranted practice variation remains a serious problem in maternity care.

So why are there so many more surgical births and such wide variation in rates of cesarean sections? Well one clear factor at work is variation in how women are treated in labor. For example, some hospitals keep women who present in early labor while other hospitals are more likely to offer supportive care to these women and encourage that they remain at home until active labor. Why is being in a hospital in early labor a problem? When a woman is in a hospital in early labor she is put in a bed, her movements are restricted, and she is tethered to a fetal monitor. None of these interventions has been shown by research to improve maternal or infant outcomes, and in fact they all have documented harms. In addition, it is normal and expected for early labor to start and stop for several days. However, if a woman is admitted to a hospital in early labor and her labor stops then she is likely to have an unnecessary induction of labor. Overuse of inductions lead to more cesarean sections. This becomes the beginning of a cascade of events that all too often leads to a surgical intervention.

Let’s move to the hemorrhage recommendations as another example. Hemorrhage remains a leading cause of death and severe morbidity despite more efforts over recent years to control blood loss at birth. Why haven’t these efforts succeeded? One reason is that as the cesarean rate rises, more pregnant women have uterine scars. The uterine scar increases a woman’s risk for abnormal placenta implantation when they get pregnant again. These abnormal placenta implantations are called percretas, accretas and previas. When a woman has placenta accreta or percreta this can lead to internal organ damage and permanent damage to her uterus because the placenta literally grows into the uterine muscle or even into her bowel and bladder and cannot detach from these organs after the baby is born. This abnormal implantation leads to hemorrhage and also often necessitates the removal of her uterus to save her life. Abnormal placenta implantations used to be very rare emergencies; they are becoming common now due to the overuse of cesarean sections. This is a trend that is frightening to me because based on the current rates of cesarean sections the number of women affected will only increase. Things are going to get much worse.

Lamaze International has issued our own “Sentinel Alert” on how to prevent maternal deaths. Lamaze’s recommendations are called the Six Healthy Birth Practices. Following these key practices will prevent women from being thrown in the river and needing to be rescued.

The critical behaviors that Lamaze recommends to improve health and safety are to let labor start on it’s own, encourage freedom of movementoffer labor support rather than labor management, avoid all routine interventions not supported by evidence, avoid interfering with a woman’s freedom to push in an upright position or any position of her choice, and keep the baby with the mother after birth.

Hospitals can help achieve the Joint Commission goal of reducing preventable maternal deaths while also making progress toward Joint Commission core measures by training staff in these practices. Lamaze International offers an Evidence-Based Nursing Care Workshop to do just that. Registration is currently open for our March workshop in Hollywood, Florida.

Debra Bingham, DrPH, RH, LCCE is President-Elect for Lamaze International, Executive Director of the California Maternal Quality Care Collaborative (CMQCC), a member of the California Pregnancy-Associated Maternal Mortality Review Committee and a lead researcher for determining how to prevent maternal deaths.

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