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Non–health care municipal services cut severe maternal morbidity rates


Municipal budget allocations can affect severe maternal morbidity (SMM) rates, a cross-sectional study published in JAMA Network Open reported.

Led by Felix M. Muchomba, PhD, an assistant professor at Rutgers University School of Social Work in New Brunswick, N.J., the study found that local expenditures on fire and ambulance, transportation, health, housing, and libraries were negatively associated with SMM. Specifically, annual per-capita expenditures of $1,000 and higher in these categories were associated with a 35.4%-67.3% lower risk of SMM: odds ratios, 0.33 (95% confidence interval, 0.15-0.72) to 0.65 (95% CI, 0.46-0.91).

In contrast, expenditures on police were positively associated with SMM: OR, 1.15 (95% CI, 1.04-1.28).

In the first study of environmental services spending and SMM done at the municipal level – others have focused on state and county funding – Dr. Muchomba’s group analyzed 2008-2018 birth files linked to maternal hospital discharge records and U.S. Census municipal expenditures data.

The study’s cohort comprised 1,001,410 mothers giving birth in New Jersey hospitals with a mean age of 29.8 years. Of these,10.9 % were Asian, 14.8% were Black, 28.0% were Hispanic, and 44.7% were White.

Per-capita municipal expenditures were reviewed for a broad range of city services: education, public health, fire and ambulance, parks, recreation, natural resources, housing, community development, public welfare; police; transportation, and libraries. “Each year municipalities spend about $600 billion nationwide on local services, investing far more than counties do,” Dr. Muchomba said.

Among developed nations, the United States has a rate of high maternal morbidity, a determinant of maternal mortality, and New Jersey has one of the highest rates in the country, although, paradoxically, it has one of the lowest state poverty rates and one of the highest state income levels, he added, said explaining the impetus for the study.

Previous research has found that state and local investment in non–health specific services can reduce infant mortality rates (IMR). Last year, for example, a national study of 2000-2016 data led by Neal D. Goldstein, PhD, MRI, an assistant professor of epidemiology and biostatistics at Drexel University in Philadelphia, reported that a $0.30 per-person increase in environmental spending was associated with a decrease of 0.03 deaths per 1,000 live births, and a $0.73 per-person increase in social services spending was associated with a decrease of 0.02 deaths per 1,000 live births. “IMR is reflective of, and amenable to broad social, economic, and health care delivery contexts within a society. State and local governments, via increased social and environmental expenditures, have the potential to reduce, albeit not eliminate, IMR disparities,” Dr. Goldstein’s group wrote in Pediatrics.

According to Aimee J. Palumbo, PhD, MPH, an assistant professor in the department of epidemiology & biostatistics in the College of Public Health at Temple University in Philadelphia, who was not involved in the study, the current study’s results are broadly consistent with those of the Goldstein study, of which she is a coauthor, in that it shows spending on public welfare is associated with better outcomes following birth.

“This analysis, however, is done at the municipality level, which allows it to evaluate variations in spending that occur at more local levels, rather than the state level like ours,” she said in an interview. “The researchers are also able to control for individual-level factors,” which is good as it is really suggestive of the impact that spending has on outcomes after controlling for some individual characteristics.”

Both studies speak to the importance of exploring funding for social services and specific programs that affect health, Dr. Palumbo added.

Services that affect nonmedical determinants of health broadly affect how people live their daily lives, Dr. Muchomba said – where they live, how they get to work and to medical appointments, where they shop, how they engage in recreation.

“Housing is very important for mothers since it provides a safe space to shelter during pregnancy and during recovery from childbirth. It’s a safe place to store medications and to prepare healthy food,” he continued. “But much of the housing in New Jersey is very expensive, and some mothers may have to decide between paying the rent and buying healthy food.”

In other benefits, local services spending provides transportation to jobs and health care, bus shelters, effective waste management, viable sidewalks, safe crosswalks, and public exercise venues that help to reduce obesity.

The category that Dr. Muchomba is most often asked about is libraries. “Why libraries? Our hypothesis is that libraries provide some low-income people with their only access to computers and the Internet. They’re a major resource for information and a proxy for the delivery of other services,” he said. In addition, many libraries offer English as a second language classes, which may increase health literacy among immigrants.

A major objective of the 2020 Maternal Health Action Plan of the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services is to better target resources by identifying problem spots for maternal morbidity and mortality. “Our findings strongly suggest that surveillance at the municipal level, a level rarely considered in studies of health outcomes, would be important for success in such efforts,” the authors wrote.

Dr. Muchomba believes doctors can have a role to play in targeting of spending for local services that can reduce maternal morbidity and mortality. “Many physicians are engaged in community health outreach efforts. As respected people in the community, they need to be aware of these other determinants of health that may be driving maternal morbidity rates in their communities.”

This research was supported by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences, the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services Health Resources and Service Administration and the Child Health Institute of New Jersey. Dr. Muchomba reported a grant from Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development outside of the submitted work. Dr. Palumbo had no potential competing interests to disclose.



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