Improving Health in Alabama: Auburn University Nursing faculty enlist community support to address health care needs of Alabama’s most vulnerable

Tori Bowie was known for her athletic prowess on the track. She captured three medals at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, including a gold medal as the anchor of the women’s 4 x 100-meter relay team.

She made headlines again this May when she died at the age of 32 due to complications from childbirth.

“When I learned of Tori Bowie’s death, I shared the news with my project team because I felt that it helped confirm the need to engage African American women in research studies to develop solutions towards improving maternal health outcomes,” said Katilya Ware, an assistant professor in Auburn University’s College of Nursing.

Pregnancy-related deaths occur during or within one year of the end of pregnancy from a complication or chain of events initiated or aggravated by the physiological effects of pregnancy.

“In the United States, African American women experience pregnancy-related deaths at a rate three to four times higher than white women,” added Ware. “Engaging African American women, family members or other support persons in research is critical in mitigating the continued increase in these deaths that has remained persistent over the last two decades.”

Bowie’s death also made Ware think of a pregnancy-related death in her own family. In 2011, Ware’s 30-year-old sister, Kanika, died from an amniotic fluid embolism. She wasn’t famous like Bowie, but her pregnancy-related death was just as tragic.

Because of her sister and the complications other family members endured during pregnancy, Ware has devoted her research at Auburn to improving maternal health outcomes in Alabama. In 2020, Alabama had the third-highest maternal mortality rate in the nation.

For her project, “Engaging African American Women in the South in Patient-Centered Outcomes Research,” Ware received funding from the Patient-Centered Outcomes Research Institute (PCORI) to build a consortium to engage African American women with local faith-based leaders and health experts to improve maternal health outcomes.

Thirty African American women who are either pregnant or delivered within the last five years are currently working with the group, alongside a family member and/or support person.

“Most pregnancy-related deaths are preventable,” said Ware. “Recognition of warning signs for symptoms that occur during pregnancy or after delivery is essential in receiving a prompt diagnosis and treatment.”

Ware is not alone in her attempt to improve the health of Alabamians. Several faculty members in the college are specifically conducting research with racial and ethnic minority groups, those who experience poor health disproportionately higher than others.

Assistant Professor Sarah Watts is seeking answers to improve the health outcomes of the local Hispanic population. In general, Hispanics have limited access to health care, which leads to poor health outcomes and increased susceptibility to certain disease states.

To address this, Watts secured funding from PCORI to support her project, “Engaging and Training Stakeholders to Participate in Patient-Centered Research to Reduce Obesity in Hispanic Women,” and engaged with Hispanic women, their families, community partners and health care providers.

A key partner for Watts has been Odalys Silvera, executive director of Esperanza House, a local non-profit organization aimed at improving the quality of life for Hispanic children and their families. The pair collaborate with leaders across Lee County, Alabama, to improve access to health care for these families.

“I believe Sarah’s project is very important to our local community and Hispanic women across the country, as many are facing numerous challenges and are in poor health,” said Silvera.

Another key partner is East Alabama Health. As Watts and her team identify Hispanics who could benefit from access to preventative care, they arrange for Opelika’s Neighborhood Mobile Wellness Clinic to visit these local communities. Victor Chavez’s visit to the clinic in his neighborhood likely saved his life.

Watts and Ware are also working with the hospital to create a program to improve prenatal care for pregnant women, especially vulnerable populations.

“Many of these women arrive at the hospital to deliver with minimal prenatal care, which can lead to poor outcomes,” said Watts. “We aim to change this.”

As Alabama continues to be ranked one of the lowest states in the country in overall health, faculty in the College of Nursing are striving to change that and make Alabama a better place to live and work.


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