Arkansas researchers awarded $17.5M for pregnancy weight research

Study to focus on excessive gain, related complications

In this Tuesday, Oct. 30, 2012 photo, Dr. Russell Dohner wears a stethoscope around his neck as he tends to patients in his office in Rushville, Ill. (AP/Jeff Roberson)
In this Tuesday, Oct. 30, 2012 photo, Dr. Russell Dohner wears a stethoscope around his neck as he tends to patients in his office in Rushville, Ill. (AP/Jeff Roberson)

Researchers in Arkansas have been awarded $17.5 million to study ways of preventing women from gaining excessive weight during pregnancy.

The award to the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences and the Community Health Centers of Arkansas was part of $80.5 million worth of funding announced by the Patient-Centered Outcomes Research Institute for research aimed at improving maternal health.

In Arkansas, the money will go to a study comparing two ways of preventing excessive weight gain.

Women who receive what's described as the enhanced standard of care will be offered nutritional counseling, help signing up for food stamps and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children and referrals to other assistance.

Other women in the Delivering HOPE study will receive the same assistance plus the delivery of healthy food to their homes. HOPE stands for Helping Women Optimize Prenatal Equity.

"The research will help us answer the question, 'Does the provision of healthy foods during pregnancy reduce the proportion of women who experience excess gestational weight gain and the associated complications?'" Dr. Pearl McElfish, director of community health and research at UAMS and one of the leaders of the study, said during a news briefing Tuesday.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Arkansas' maternal mortality rate, 43.5 deaths per 100,000 births, in 2018-2021 was the highest among states for which a rate could be reliably calculated.

A UAMS news release also noted that Arkansas had the country's third-highest infant mortality rate last year, with 7.67 deaths per 1,000 births, and was found to have the country's highest rate of food insecurity in a report released last month by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The UAMS release said Arkansas also has the country's second highest prevalence of overweight or obesity among women, with about 65% of women in the state being overweight or obese when they become pregnant.

According to the Patient-Centered Outcomes Research Institute's website, 49% of women in Arkansas experience excessive gestational weight gain.

Gaining more weight than the recommended amount during pregnancy increases the chances of having a baby who is born too large, which can lead to delivery complications and the need for a cesarean delivery, and increases the risk of the child and the mother becoming obese, according to the CDC.

"Women who do not have access to healthy foods are at greater risk for this excessive gestational weight gain and the associated maternal complications that come along with it," Dr. Lanita White, chief executive officer of Community Health Centers of Arkansas and the other leader of the study, said at the news briefing.

"This is especially true for women who are low income, who are rural, and who are food insecure, and who also face financial and transportation barriers," she added.

The association represents 11 federally funded community health centers, which target medically underserved areas and populations and have 150 clinics across Arkansas.

McElfish said researchers will have a one year planning period which they will spend connecting with rural communities through the community health centers.

They will enroll 14,040 women to participate in the research, with most of them being minorities or from rural areas, McElfish said.

Researchers on three other studies will also share in the $80.5 million in awards announced Tuesday.

One study, in New York City, will also focus on weight gain during pregnancy. Of the others, one will look at a program aimed at reducing high blood pressure during pregnancy, and one will focus on mood and anxiety disorders that affect pregnant and postpartum women.

Based in Washington, D.C., the federally funded Patient-Centered Outcomes Research Institute was created under the 2010 Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act to fund and evaluate research aimed at helping patients, doctors, and policymakers make better health care decisions.

According to its website, the institute has awarded more than $3 billion to fund nearly 2,000 research and related projects since it was created.

Ly is a Report for America Corps member.

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