For women, pregnancy and childbirth can mean less-than-ideal encounters with the health care system – especially for women of color. A 2019 study showed that one in six pregnant women reported mistreatment by a health care provider. The study identifies a need to give women a stronger voice in health care conversations.
Women don’t have to navigate these challenges alone. Doulas — individuals trained to provide physical, emotional and informational support to women throughout pregnancy — can create more positive birth experiences.
“I nurture families, empower them, let them know that they have a voice,” says Melinda King, a certified doula and CVS Health nurse.
The benefits of doulas are well-documented, says Joanne Armstrong, M.D., MPH, executive medical director and CMO, Women's Health, CVS Health, and an OB-GYN. “Doulas are associated with higher rates of positive experiences of birth and sense of control.”
Research shows that Black women are three to four times more likely than white women to die during pregnancy or delivery, says Jemea Dorsey, M.S., CEO of the Center for Black Women's Wellness, an Atlanta-based organization committed to improving the health of underserved Black women. That’s partly explained by higher rates of risk factors in women of color — but the problem goes even deeper.
“Navigating the health care system is more problematic for Black women,” Joanne says. “Fundamentally, what drives that is racism: the bias women experience because they are Black.”
Some 60% of maternal deaths are avoidable, Jemea adds. “It's our responsibility to put our full energy and commitment to move the needle on something that is so preventable.”
As an outgrowth of CVS Health’s work to help solve disparities in maternity care, in January 2021 the company began covering doula benefits, up to $1,200 per year, for eligible colleagues. Helping women — particularly Black women — access doula care and have a stronger voice in their maternity care is a major step in the right direction, Melinda says.
“A lot of our hurt as women of color comes from knowing that we’re not heard or we’re not important. I believe if we were invited to the table, there’d be more people wondering why one in every four black women is dying in childbirth. Why is that not important?”