In January 2020, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released its updated figures for maternal mortality rate in the U.S. The update, which relied on 2018 data, indicated an average of 17.4 maternal deaths per 100,000 live births. These statistics place the U.S. among the worst for developed countries. 

Even though the recent maternal mortality rate figures are alarmingly high, they are probably lower than reality. That is, it is likely the actual maternal mortality rate in the U.S. is much higher than the CDCP’s numbers suggest. 

The methodology

To calculate the maternal mortality rate in the U.S., the CDCP relied on the World Health Organization’s definition of maternal mortality. The WHO tracks maternal deaths during pregnancy and for 42 days after childbirth, but it does not account for deaths from accidental or incidental causes. Many of these accidental and incidental causes of maternal death are preventable. 

A tracking problem

By using the WHO definition, the CDCP did not track other causes of maternal death. For example, if a mother died of a drug overdose from untreated depression, her death would likely not appear in the official maternal mortality rate. The same is true for any new mother who died more than 42 days after giving birth. 

A public health crisis

In the U.S., public health professionals often focus on the health of the newborn baby without paying enough attention to the ongoing needs of his or her mother. Mental health concerns, such as postpartum depression, may not receive sufficient focus. 

Even though the maternal mortality rate in the U.S. indicates some type of public health crisis, doctors have a duty to treat mothers and their baby’s adequately. A medical professional who neglects this duty may commit malpractice.