UH Researchers Find Racial Disparities in Severe Maternal Morbidity Due to Preexisting Health Conditions

Study Highlights Critical Need for Expanded Prenatal Health Care

Jo-Carolyn Goode | 7/3/2024, 4:34 p.m.
A groundbreaking study conducted by researchers at the University of Houston has revealed alarming racial disparities in severe maternal morbidity …

 A groundbreaking study conducted by researchers at the University of Houston has revealed alarming racial disparities in severe maternal morbidity (SMM) in Texas. The study found that Black women experience SMM nearly twice as often as white women, emphasizing the urgent need for expanded health care well before hospitalization for childbirth.

The comprehensive research, led by the University of Houston’s Institute for Research on Women, Gender, and Sexuality (IRWGS), discovered that preexisting health conditions account for nearly 80% of the disparity between Black and white women. The remaining gap could be attributed to differences in the severity of conditions, biases in treatment within hospitals, and other factors.

“Black women exhibit a higher number and different composition of preexisting health conditions compared to white women upon entering the hospital for delivery,” said Annamaria Milazzo, a research assistant professor at IRWGS. “The data suggest that a significant portion of the disparity can be explained by differences in health status prior to delivery, rather than Black women using worse hospitals or seeing worse doctors compared to white women.”

Maternal mortality, defined as a woman’s death due to pregnancy-related causes, is a critical concern in the United States, which has one of the highest maternal mortality rates in the developed world. According to the National Institutes of Health’s Office of Research on Women’s Health, approximately 700 women die each year in the U.S. due to pregnancy-related causes. However, the rates of SMM are much higher, with roughly 75 women experiencing SMM for every maternal death. Black women experience substantially higher rates of both maternal mortality and SMM.

The study analyzed hospital inpatient discharge data from all deliveries in Texas between 2016 and 2022. The findings underscore a clear need for a stronger focus on women’s health well before conception, including expanded access to Medicaid. Texas has the highest share of uninsured women in the nation, with nearly 1 in 4 women of reproductive age lacking health insurance. In Texas, Medicaid becomes available to many low-income women only after they become pregnant.

“Better access to comprehensive care pre-conception, including regular check-ups and improved management of medical conditions as they emerge, as well as reproductive health care, could help address these issues,” Milazzo emphasized.

To further discuss these critical findings and explore potential solutions, the Institute for Research on Women, Gender, and Sexuality is hosting a webinar:

Webinar on the UH IRWGS Maternal Morbidity Report

When: Monday, July 8, 11 a.m. – 12 p.m.  


Prof. Zelma Oyarvide, Moderator (UH WGSS/Sociology)

Prof. Annamaria Milazzo, Presenter (UH IRWGS/Economics)

Prof. Neema Langa, Panelist (UH AAS/Sociology)

Prof. Shreela Sharma, Panelist (UTHealth/Epidemiology)

Prof. Brittany Slatton, Panelist (Texas Southern/Sociology)

About the University of Houston

The University of Houston, a Carnegie-designated Tier One public research university, is recognized for excellence in undergraduate education with a Phi Beta Kappa chapter. Serving the globally competitive Houston and Gulf Coast Region, UH offers world-class faculty, experiential learning, and strategic industry partnerships. Located in the nation's fourth-largest city and one of the most ethnically and culturally diverse regions, UH is a federally designated Hispanic- and Asian-American-Serving institution with over 47,000 students enrolled.