The U.S. has the worst rate of maternal deaths in the developed world. Thousands of women — especially black women — experience pregnancy-related complications just before or in the year after childbirth, and about 700 women die every year from them, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Tech startup Mahmee wants to change that. Founded in 2014, the company works to help women during the weeks and months after they've given birth, via a mobile app that's designed to better connect new moms with health care and support, offering tools like surveys to assess their postpartum emotional and physical health. The goal? To reduce maternal deaths and complications.
Mothers can sign up on their own and get access to a team of experts including maternity coaches, nutritionists and lactation coaches — and if their health care providers are connected to the system, they can share information with them. To date, the company has more than 1,000 providers and organizations in its network.
In July, the app received $3 million in new funding to grow its team — a portion of which comes from Serena Williams, the tennis star who made headlines last year after she almost died shortly after giving birth to her daughter. Williams's experience helped shine a light on maternal health concerns, particularly among black women.
Melissa Hanna is CEO of Mahmee and a co-founder, along with her mother, Linda Hanna. Linda is also a longtime nurse and lactation consultant. NPR's Lulu Garcia-Navarro spoke to mother and daughter about their app and how they are addressing what the two see as a gap in postpartum health care.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Tell us how you came up with Mahmee?
Melissa: The idea for Mahmee came about from watching my mom work in this field for years and years and realizing that there was a limited set of tools available to professionals like herself to create the impact that she wanted to have on mothers' and babies' lives. And after watching her build out very successful programs for hospitals and health systems and all sorts of different experiences in the inpatient setting, we started talking about what could be done in the outpatient setting when patients are home with their families.
What are some of the common complications new mothers might face — and how could Mahmee help them?
Melissa: In the past 12 months, we've had patients who've experienced severe blood loss and postpartum hemorrhaging. We've worked with families and with mothers that are experiencing prenatal anxiety and supported them in preparing for their childbirth experience in the hospital. There have been patients who have experienced postpartum depression; in some cases, some very severe postpartum psychosis symptoms.
One case in particular comes to mind. A patient who was experiencing suicidal ideations and hadn't reached out to anyone for help yet...she wasn't sure if this was a normal part of being a new mom. She had a 2-week-old baby. After taking the postpartum depression survey that was available to her on her Patient Dashboard, [she] scored really high and [was] immediately flagged for additional assistance. And so Mahmee was able to step in and engage with her, verify these symptoms, and immediately escalate this to the OB-GYN's attention who had no idea she'd been struggling.
Studies have shown that women of color are three times more likely to die of childbirth complications than white women in the U-S. Why is that, and what is Mahmee trying to do to close that gap?
Melissa: What we're seeing now is the crisis of maternity and infant health care come to the surface because the stats around black mother and black infant mortality and morbidity are so inexcusable. There's a huge discrepancy in how patients are cared for.
I think that a very important part of this whole story that often gets overlooked is how broken the overall system is, and how fragmented it is for any parent who's trying to navigate this process with a number of different providers [across] different health ecosystems. You've got your OB-GYN taking care of Mom, the pediatrician taking care of baby, and a number of other professionals who are often out-of-network for new families. And then you add into that a layer of systemic racism and bias ...it just becomes these insurmountable odds for families [of color].
Linda: One of the biggest drawbacks for [this population is] that they don't believe anybody is going to listen or actually care. We actually do care. We want to know how you're feeling and we want to be able to step in when somebody even reports just a feeling that they're having. We don't tell people, "oh, that's normal, or that's a common feeling," but actually address what they're feeling.
For hospitals and health care providers that sign up, how does it work? Does Mahmee offer some sort of bias training to its physicians?
Melissa: At Mahmee, we practice what we call "culturally competent care," which means that from day one our team is getting trained on how to actively listen to families' concerns, and specifically to read between the lines of the things that are being shared by new mothers. Patients are concerned that they're not going to be believed anyway if they express what's really going on. And so at Mahmee we are very conscious of the fact that this is what's happening around the country, and this is something that patients are living with every day. It means that we have to overcome that by providing a degree of care that is above and beyond ... really coming to patients where they're at.
How did Serena Williams become an investor?
Melissa: We connected with Serena Williams through Arlan Hamilton, who's a longtime investor and advocate for Mahmee.
Linda: I insisted that I wouldn't actually take money or have anybody investing who didn't really understand myself and Melissa first. And I'd like to meet everyone. She agreed, and I think she's a very busy woman. Then she saw us on the screen — we were doing a video call — and she saw that I was a Caucasian woman and my daughter was a mixed race girl, and she almost started crying. Then we got the privilege of meeting her in person, which was incredible.