Racial and Ethnic Disparities in Severe Maternal Morbidity: A Qualitative Study of Women's Experiences of Peripartum Care

Womens Health Issues. Jan-Feb 2021;31(1):75-81. doi: 10.1016/j.whi.2020.09.002. Epub 2020 Oct 14.


Introduction: Racial and ethnic disparities in rates of maternal morbidity and mortality in the United States are striking and persistent. Despite evidence that variation in the quality of care contributes substantially to these disparities, we do not sufficiently understand how experiences of perinatal care differ by race and ethnicity among women with severe maternal morbidity.

Methods: We conducted focus groups with women who experienced a severe maternal morbidity event in a New York City hospital during their most recent pregnancy (n = 20). We organized three focus groups by self-identified race/ethnicity ([1] Black, [2] Latina, and [3] White or Asian) to detect any within- and between-group differences. Discussions were audiotaped and transcribed. The research team coded the transcripts and used content analysis to identify key themes and to compare findings across racial and ethnic groups.

Results: Participants reported distressing experiences and lasting emotional consequences after having a severe childbirth complication. Many women appreciated the life-saving care they received. However, poor continuity of care, communication gaps, and a perceived lack of attentiveness to participants' physical and emotional needs led to substantial concern and disappointment in care. Black and Latina women in particular emphasized these themes.

Conclusions: This study highlights missed opportunities for improved clinician communication and continuity of care to address emotional trauma when severe obstetric complications occur, particularly for Black and Latina women. Enhancing communication to ensure that women feel heard and informed throughout the birth process and addressing implicit bias, as a part of the more systemic issue of institutionalized racism, could both decrease disparities in obstetric care quality and improve the patient experience for women of all races and ethnicities.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • African Americans
  • Ethnic Groups*
  • European Continental Ancestry Group
  • Female
  • Humans
  • New York City
  • Peripartum Period*
  • Pregnancy
  • United States