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Saving Our Babies celebrates six years of bolstering Black maternal and infant health in Dane County

The Dane County Health Council and its partners celebrated six years of its Saving Our Babies initiative with a press conference at the Foundation for Black Women’s Wellness headquarters on Tuesday.

The Dane County Health Council and its partners celebrated six years of its Saving Our Babies (SoB) initiative with an annual press conference held at the Foundation for Black Women’s Wellness (FFBWW) headquarters on Tuesday. The initiative’s innovative care coordination program, ConnectRx Wisconsin, which serves birthing people in Dane County throughout their perinatal journeys, is celebrating two years of delivering promising, tangible success.

Saving Our Babies was started by the DCHC and a handful of cross-sector partners, including FFBWW and EQT By Design to address the harrowing rates of Black maternal and infant mortality in Dane County. Its most recent program, ConnectRx, provides qualifying birthing people with wrap-around social, economic, and mental health support. Patients are given a high-risk assessment using a social determinants of health screening tool developed by SoB partners and Epic, which now serves as a model for prenatal care nationwide. 

To date, ConnectRx has yielded impressive statistics, including facilitating care for 674 Black pregnant patients, 600 of whom were provided with essential resources like food and shelter. 90% of babies born with doula support successfully reached optimal gestational age, and 84% were born at a healthy birth weight. 

“Through this synergistic approach, we have the power to dismantle systemic barriers, address intergenerational health inequities, and forge pathways to better health outcomes for all,” Gabe Doyle, FFWBB’s chief health initiatives officer, said. 

“We continue to prove what is possible when systems and communities come together to create transformational change to address an unacceptable, but in our opinion, a very solvable public health crisis,” FFBWW CEO and president Lisa M. Peyton added.

Part of what has made ConnectRx such a success is that it brings together community and medical support, which is further bolstered by innovative technology. In her remarks, Dane County Health Council Program Director Ariel Robbins emphasized the efficiency of the program’s “all hands on deck support” approach. “The utilization of electronic referrals allows care teams members to engage in real time information exchange that is invaluable.”

(L-r) Dr. Jasmine Zapata, Lisa M. Peyton, Dr. Ryan McAdams, and Dr. Tiffany Green. (Photo by Rodlyn-mae Banting)

In addition to this system novelty, being connected with doulas has significantly improved Black birthing people’s experiences throughout the entire perinatal process, from conception, to birth, to postpartum and beyond. 

“Numerous patients have shared how much it means to them to have someone checking in and ensuring their wellbeing,” UW Health’s Vice President for Population Health Robin Lankton said of ConnectRx’s collective impact model. “It provides them a sense of hope.” 

Micaela Berry-Smith, who is the senior manager of FFBWW’s Community & Maternal and Child Health Initiatives and is a doula herself, emphasized the wide range of support that doulas can and do provide.

“Not only do doulas rub our backs and ensure that we are nurtured, but they also support our births by educating, empowering and advocating for equitable experiences for Black women and birthing people in Dane County,” she said. “Doulas are unsung heroes of maternal and child health.”

Many of the people who spoke at the press conference have worked with doulas during their pregnancies and births and sang praises to their contributions. Crystal Lee, a mother who went through the ConnectRx program, had two doulas for the births of her three-year-old daughter and her six-month-old son. “With my daughter, [my doula] was the best support that I’ve ever had,” she shared. “If it wasn’t for Felicia, I probably would have had no one.”

One of Saving Our Babies’s biggest strengths is its dedication to giving Black birthing people a robust care network that works together to co-create solutions. Dr. Ryan McAdams, who is a professor, neonatologist, and the chief of the Division of Neonatology and Newborn Nursery at the UW School of Medicine and Public Health, emphasized doulas’ ability to give their clients cultural and emotional support. 

“Doulas, to me, are just a testament of how the healthcare system should work,” he said. “We know medicine is just one little piece of it.”

Saving Our Babies and ConnectRx’s approach to perinatal care is making strides towards achieving reproductive justice in Dane County by taking seriously “the idea that Black people need this holistic model of care.” “Rarely do you see efforts of this magnitude snf this scale in the United States,” Dr. Tiffany Green, an associate professor for UW-Madison’s Population Health Sciences and Obstetrics and Gynecology departments, emphasized.

She continued: “I think it’s a testament of the commitment of Dane County Health Council and Black women and partner [organizations] to advance this work that is based in evidence.”

In light of the remarkable strides that ConnectRx Wisconsin has made in its first two years, the speakers made clear that the work has just begun, and momentum is growing. Dr. Jasmine Zapata, Wisconsin Department of Health Services’ chief medical officer, shared that WDHS has not only distributed $16M to help fund healthy birth outcome initiatives statewide, but the department also recently received $1.5M for a maternal health innovation grant.

With plans to create a maternal health task force on the horizon, Zapata ensured WDHS’s commitment to supporting Saving Our Babies and ConnectRx’s longevity. “What we don’t want to happen is for this to be an initiative that in 100 years, people look back and say, ‘Wow, that was a great program that lasted for five to six years. What happened to it?’” she said. 

“We want this not to just be something that is a moment in time. This is an initiative that is so promising.”