Rutgers honors student launched Mother's Touch to address maternal health disparities
Growing up the daughter of an emergency room pediatrician and a registered nurse, Zoe Reich thought she understood as a person of color the extent that systematic racism led to health disparities.
Now the 19-year-old rising sophomore is working on a project to ensure women who are ready to become mothers, embark on that journey with the odds in their favor.
After discovering that New Jersey is ranked 47th in the nation for maternal deaths and has one of the widest racial disparities for both maternal and infant mortality, Reich was inspired to develop the app Mother’s Touch. The idea was conceived this winter while the High Bridge resident was interning with the Women’s Health Institute at Robert Wood Johnson Medical School and contributing to their Writing Heals & Inspires journal.
“One of the writing prompts asked about maternal mortality and how you react to it. I’m ashamed to admit it, but I wasn’t familiar with the numbers,” said Reich, who is majoring in Microbiology and English and minoring in Spanish in the School of Arts and Sciences. “I couldn’t believe it. This issue was never talked about when I was growing up. I was in awe about how unprepared I was for the realities of pregnancy.”
Under the guidance of RWJMS OBGYN Gloria Bachmann, Reich assembled a team of 40 female Honors College and Douglass students with the shared goal of empowering mothers, pregnant individuals, and those interested in conceiving through an interactive educational app that supplies information in a digestible format. A beta version of Mother’s Touch launched June 17 during a Women’s Health Institute webinar, and an updated version will be introduced to RWJMS patients later this summer.
The Rutgers-led project was inspired by Nurture NJ, a statewide awareness campaign founded by First Lady Tammy Murphy on Maternal Health Awareness Day (Jan. 23) in 2019. It focuses making New Jersey the safest and most equitable place in the nation to give birth and raise a baby. Reich and Bachmann brainstormed with Murphy and her team during the process to ensure the app enhances First Lady’s mission.
“None of us can do anything as an individual. It takes a team. That’s what Zoe’s project really represents,” said Bachmann. “We are all in this together. We want to move medicine ahead to provide the best care possible.”
To say the project is personal to this team of Rutgers students is an understatement, said Reich. Each member walks the line of many intersections – including that of a woman in STEM. The group is comprised of three sub-teams – research, computer science, advertising and advocacy – with three students acting as political coordinator, budget coordinator and business coordinator. Together they fused their unique cultural experiences and perspectives on maternal health and COVID-19 to create Mother’s Touch.
Reich’s family is deeply intertwined with medicine. Her father is an emergency room pediatrician, and her mother, a registered nurse, was born in Trinidad. As a woman of color, Reich said she is aware of the ways systemic racism in healthcare can lead to dire outcomes. Black and brown mothers in New Jersey are seven times more likely to die in childbirth than white mothers and an African American baby is three times more likely to die than a white baby in their first year of life. To that end, Mother’s Touch also is collaborating with other New Jersey organizations, such as doula networks, and Melinated Moms for guidance on essential information most needed by the target audience utilizing the app.
“My family has been lucky to have the background healthcare, so they have not experienced care that is less than optimal,” said Reich, who is still deciding whether she would like to pursue a career in medicine or academia.
The first version of Mother’s Touch, available on the App Store and Google Play Store, will focus on the intersection between maternal health and COVID-19 and reducing confusion and misinformation about the virus and vaccines by sharing facts without bias or conflicting information.
“If you give women the data and educate them that the vaccine is something really important for them and for their baby’s health, you are dispelling a lot of the myths surrounding COVID,” said Bachmann. “I’ve heard from many women during the pandemic say they were fearful they would have to give birth alone; fearful the vaccine would cause infertility. If Mary Smith is interested in getting pregnant next year and she hears that statement (although inaccurate), it’s frightening.”
Mother’s Touch also includes daily prompts to promote self-efficacy within users by presenting them with questions such as “Have you gone outside today?” and “Have you stayed hydrated today?” These daily focuses will become more specific as it correlates with data collected by the app about participant experiences. Future versions of the app will cover other maternal health topics, such as breastfeeding, racism in healthcare and actions that can be taken to insure optimal health care. Other planned updates will include a map of intake centers in Central New Jersey to facilitate user interactions and offer language options in addition to English and Spanish.
Growing up, most girls are taught how to not get pregnant. Tweens and teens learn more about puberty, menstruation and conception and less about pregnancy, labor and delivery, said Bachmann, but early guidance on reproductive health, including how to maintain your health before conception is also important to avoid common complications like high blood pressure, preeclampsia or gestational diabetes.
“This is not the thought on most 19-year-old girls minds, but it is a good thing to put out there,” said Reich. “If we don’t start the conversation until it happens, we will be so unprepared and scared for what should be a happy experience.”