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Berkeley Public Health alum puts new moms’ healthcare first

Health app Birth by Us offers maternal wraparound care

It was Ijeoma Uche’s sophomore year as an undergraduate student at Brown University when, unbeknownst to her, a paradigm shift occurred. In her first public health class, she learned about what researchers have known for some time: Black women are about three times more likely to die from pregnancy complications than white women.

As a Black woman herself, Uche felt disheartened by the magnitude of racial disparities when it came to maternal health. Increased risk of postpartum depression. Higher likelihood of premature aging. Greater chronic stress. She wanted to find out how inequality between Black and white mothers emerged and what could be done about it.

“The healthcare system isn’t designed to ensure that moms feel fully heard or seen. This oversight implies that we are not prioritizing mothers, who essentially serve as the gateway to the healthcare system for many families.,” Uche said, adding that medical professionals frequently ignore Black mothers’ concerns and dismiss their symptoms.

This loomed in the back of Uche’s mind throughout her studies at Brown until her graduation in 2021. She began asking mentors and professionals in the field what it would mean to use technology to solve this problem. That’s when it all clicked: What if there was an app that put mothers’ healthcare into their own hands?

That year, she enrolled at UC Berkeley School of Public Health to study maternal, child, and adolescent health, and began to build what would be the foundation of the digital health app Birth by Us.

Uche describes Birth by Us as “a one-stop shop for moms,” built with personalized, data-driven features that help track pregnancy symptoms, give healthcare provider details, and house community discussion boards for parents to build camaraderie. Through a series of focus groups with Black mothers and conversations with medical professionals, it was clear that what mattered most in developing an app to address maternal healthcare disparities was that it is centered on wraparound care.

In addition to care for the newborn, wraparound care addresses the mother’s needs after birth with caretaking and psychological support. According to Uche, the healthcare system disproportionately focuses on the newborn’s well-being immediately after birth, many times at the expense of the mother’s postpartum care. . Fifty-two percent of maternal deaths happen in the postpartum period, showcasing that the health of the mother post-pregnancy is vital for babies’ maturation.

“We realize that in order for the newborn to be safe—to be healthy—that their caretaker also needs to be safe and healthy.”

Birth by Us addresses this through daily check-ins that administer warning bells for moms to contact their healthcare providers when something concerning comes up.

These features were meticulously designed after a series of focus groups and community feedback sessions with Black mothers in 2021. There, concerns about not feeling supported or listened to by medical professionals were common anxieties that Uche noticed. There’s plenty of evidence to corroborate these anxieties, too: Black women are three times more likely to die from pregnancy complications than white women regardless of their education, income, or any other socioeconomic factors due to differences in healthcare treatment, structural racism, and implicit bias. The culmination of these factors leads to overall worse health outcomes for Black mothers and their babies such as preeclampsia, blood clots, low birth weight, and postpartum depression. Giving Black moms digital tools to monitor their health, provide medically-approved information, ask one another questions, and connect with well-established community resources before and after pregnancy are small but powerful ways to reduce their higher likelihood of pregnancy-related death.

According to Uche, the reception has been overwhelmingly positive and many Black mothers believe it’s given them the confidence to speak to their doctors with authority.

The Westly Foundation took notice too, and earlier this year it awarded Uche and co-founder Mercy Oladipo $40,000 as winners of the 2024 Westly Prize for Young Social Innovators.

With users all across the US and a mobile application to come, Uche attributes the development of Birth by Us to her time at Berkeley Public Health and the Wallace Center for Maternal, Child, and Adolescent Health. By leveraging connections at Berkeley, Brown, and Oladipo’s alumnus MIT, Uche was able to craft her master’s program around Birth by Us with mentorship from Lindsay Parham, executive director of the Wallace Center, Jaspal Sandhu, executive vice president at Hopelab and a professor of practice at the Center of Excellence in Maternal Child & Adolescent Health, and Cassondra Marshall, assistant professor of maternal, child, and adolescent health. Uche even took healthcare finance and entrepreneurship courses at Berkeley’s Haas School of Business to meticulously navigate the world of “social-impact ventures,” or startups dedicated to effecting meaningful social change.

“I think Berkeley’s MPH program provided me with the essential skills and connections necessary for my professional growth and progression at that time,” Uche said. “There was so much support and encouragement. I can’t rave enough about this program.”

Birth by Us’ future is vast. The Berkeley alum is looking forward to growing its user base, partnering with community organizations, and increasing doula access for moms in search of more support. Uche and Oladipo also hope to raise their first round of venture capital funding.

In the meantime, she’s thankful she has her connections to lean on as she progresses with the app while pursuing her medical education. “We built this long-term relationship that will allow us to continue to progress in such positive ways in a space that is complicated and fun, but difficult,” Uche said. “And so I’m just forever thankful for my program and for Berkeley in that capacity.”