Stacey D. Stewart of March of Dimes: “We must do a better job to serve underserved communities and close the health equity gap”

Every American deserve access to quality, affordable health care in our country regardless of wealth, race or geography. Sadly, never in the history of this country has there been adequate healthcare extended to all persons of color — certainly not to enslaved people nor many of their descendants. Too often I hear stories and read reports of […]

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Every American deserve access to quality, affordable health care in our country regardless of wealth, race or geography. Sadly, never in the history of this country has there been adequate healthcare extended to all persons of color — certainly not to enslaved people nor many of their descendants. Too often I hear stories and read reports of moms who say they feel victimized by a healthcare system that prevents them from getting the same care others enjoy.

As a part of my interview series with leaders in healthcare, I had the pleasure to interview Stacey D. Stewart.

Stacey D. Stewart is the President and CEO at March of Dimes, which promotes the health of mothers and babies through research, education and advocacy. She is the first African-American and second woman to lead the organization in its 83-year history and is responsible for all aspects of the organization’s strategy, vision and operations. Through her work with March of Dimes, Stacey is addressing the nation’s maternal health care crisis with innovative programming like the partnership with RB’s Enfa portfolio of brands through Better Starts for All, an on-the-ground, maternal health program targeting areas of great need to address the nation’s maternal healthcare crisis.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

My path to March of Dimes wasn’t a traditional one, but the journey to get here has been a valuable one. I was an economics major at Georgetown, and I went to business school and concentrated in finance. I had every intent on working on Wall Street, which I did. I spent a summer working in leveraged buyouts and decided it didn’t hold appeal. I wanted to do something I felt served the public, which has been a consistent theme throughout my career.

I worked at Merrill Lynch, before going to Fannie Mae — a private company providing resources and capital to people to buy homes or to be able to rent affordable housing. Eventually, I worked my way up to president of the Fannie Mae Foundation which, at the time, was the nation’s largest foundation dedicated to affordable housing. We helped a lot of low-income individuals, as well as immigrant and their families, which was professionally rewarding.

From there I went to United Way Worldwide, the world’s largest privately funded nonprofit. As their U.S. president, I was responsible for setting strategy and direction for local United Ways across the country. When the opportunity to work at March of Dimes came, I was excited to be part of one of very few organizations in the world who has tackled and solved a big public health crisis: the polio pandemic. It is an honor to lead an organization that has that kind of legacy and be the second African-American woman to do so. We are focused on tackling the biggest threats to moms and babies, such as preterm birth and maternal mortality, which are issues I care deeply about.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?

When I first assumed my role as President and CEO my daughters and I took a trip to New Orleans, where we toured a slave plantation. The former slave cabins were transformed into exhibits and one in particular focused on the health of slaves. The exhibit explained that childbirth was a leading cause of death on the plantation. At that moment, it became clear to me that Black women have been experiencing maternal health challenges well before the 21st Century and that even today they are more likely to die from pregnancy-related complications than their White peers, which is unacceptable.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

While I don’t recall a mistake, I can share an interesting realization during my first days on the job. Someone was introducing me to staff as the new President (my title at the time) at our former headquarters and the room was packed. It was my understanding that I was greeting all March of Dimes staff, including our remote employees across the country. I just assumed that other staff would be joining us in a virtual capacity. I would later find out that “all staff” just meant the people physically working in headquarters. I immediately worked to establish a new meaning of “all staff” that included everyone. My team and I now convene organization-wide meetings via Zoom on a monthly basis, and even more frequently during this pandemic.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

We were founded in 1938 by President Franklin D. Roosevelt to address the polio epidemic and funded the research that led to creation of the vaccine by Dr. Jonas Salk. In the decades following, we turned our efforts towards addressing some of the biggest health threats to moms and babies — including preterm birth, maternal mortality and birth defects. We do all this through programs, advocacy, research, education and by collaborating with individuals and partners.

In the span of about 80 years, we eradicated polio, helped millions of babies survive and thrive and now, in the midst of another global health crisis, we’re ensuring pregnant woman and new moms have the health information, guidance and support they need to safeguard their health and the health of their babies.

What advice would you give to other healthcare leaders to help their team to thrive?

As an organization that’s committed to closing the health equity gap and ensuring all moms and babies get the best possible start, it’s vital that we built a team that is representative of the diverse populations we serve. I think it’s critical that the families we help see themselves in our employees, volunteers and our boards. My guidance to others is to ensure that diverse perspectives are represented throughout all levels of their organizations. Diversity is a must-have which makes an organization stronger and more in touch with the needs of communities.

Ok, thank you for that. Let’s jump to the main focus of our interview. According to this study cited by Newsweek, the US healthcare system is ranked as the worst among high income nations. This seems shocking. Can you share with us 3–5 reasons why you think the US is ranked so poorly?

The COVID-19 pandemic has uncovered many of the systemic failures in our health care system that have persisted for generations. When it comes to public health, there are individual responses we all can take on — like social distancing practices — but we also depend on a safety net, a support structure, and a health care system that has historically failed to adequately serve people of color. Inequitable conditions, such as unequal access to housing, transportation, health care and neighborhood safety, also affect a person’s ability to achieve good health starting at birth.

We must do a better job to serve underserved communities and close the health equity gap. Today, our country is in the midst of a crisis which makes us among the most dangerous developed nations for a woman to give birth. Two babies die every hour and two women die from pregnancy complications every day in the U.S. The data shows that women and babies of color are also disproportionately impacted by this crisis — Black women are three times more likely to die from pregnancy-related complications as compared to White women and up to 50 percent more likely to give birth preterm.

As mentioned above, barriers to care must also be addressed. There are 7 million women of childbearing age living in counties across the country without access or limited access to maternity care. These areas, known as maternity care deserts, have no hospital offering obstetric care, no birth center, and no OB provider and are found across urban and rural areas. This situation is unacceptable, especially when considering that COVID-19 has put additional strain on our health care system and potentially forced the closure of additional maternity wards. We must do more to address the systemic challenges with health care systems, social determinants of health like access to care and poverty and deeply entrenched, structural racism that is contributing to poor health outcomes.

You are a “healthcare insider”. If you had the power to make a change, can you share 5 changes that need to be made to improve the overall US healthcare system? Please share a story or example for each.

Ahead of last year’s election, we launched a digital advocacy campaign, known as #BlanketChange, that brought together organizations and advocates from across the U.S. to demand policymakers and candidates for office take immediate action to help end the maternal and infant health crisis. The #BlanketChange agenda calls for:

  • Eliminating racial and ethnic health disparities and driving economic, social and health equity by focusing on prevention, treatment and social determinants of health.
  • Improving access to care through expanding critical health programs and closing gaps in coverage.
  • Addressing preventable health conditions through expanding research and improving maternal morbidity and mortality data collection.

We are working hard to advance legislation in Congress that would address the maternal and child health crisis. March of Dimes is advocating for comprehensive policies included in several maternal health bills, such as improving care for women in rural areas and supporting provider training in implicit bias and culturally competent care.

Most recently, we are pleased to see action by Congress, as part of the American Rescue Plan, that would give states the option to extend postpartum coverage in their Medicaid programs to 12 months. While this is a temporary measure, of five years, we believe it will have a significant impact in ensuring continuous coverage for women before, during, and after pregnancy.

Additionally, we must ensure the unique needs of pregnant women, new mothers, and infants are prioritized in our nation’s response to COVID-19, as well as the next pandemic. From the early days of the pandemic, we were outspoken about the need to include pregnant and lactating women in vaccine clinical trials in order to understand if they are safe and effective for them. We’re pleased by Pfizer’s recent announcement that it will include pregnant women in its vaccine trials and encourage others to follow its lead. Lastly, Congress must invest more in the nation’s public health infrastructure including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), state, local, tribal and territorial core public health infrastructure to ensure our country is prepared.

Ok, its very nice to suggest changes, but what concrete steps would have to be done to actually manifest these changes? What can a) individuals, b) corporations, c) communities and d) leaders do to help?

The maternal and infant health crisis is a complex issue and addressing it requires a comprehensive set of solutions and support from a multitude of stakeholders. One of the hallmarks of our organization is our ability to convene stakeholders around the table to help address the challenges that prevent moms and babies from getting the best possible start.

To start, I urge everyone to visit to learn more about the country’s maternal and infant health crisis and join us in advocating for the changes we need by supporting #BlanketChange. Organizations and corporate partners across the country, like Macy’s and Clearblue, are standing alongside us to demand #BlanketChange.

Our corporate partners are vital to efforts to reverse the disturbing trends we’re seeing across our country. Equally vital is our work with Congress and the Administration. Last year, for example, we announced a public-private partnership with the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to reduce racial disparities in maternal mortality and morbidity. UnitedHealthCare, the nation’s largest health insurer, is providing funding to reduce these disparities and improve maternal health outcomes in high-needs states. Our donors, volunteers and partners across the country understand the urgency of the situation we’re in and we’re thankful to all of them for their time, energy and financial support.

I’m interested in the interplay between the general healthcare system and the mental health system. Right now, we have two parallel tracks, mental/behavioral health and general health. What are your thoughts about this status quo? What would you suggest to improve this?

Mental health challenges are among the most common complications of pregnancy and childbirth. According to the World Health Organization, about 10 percent of pregnant women and 13 percent of women who have just given birth experience a mental disorder, primarily depression. When left untreated, these disorders can have serious medical, societal and economic consequences.

The fact is, a mother’s mental health is directly connected to her physical health and the health of her baby. That’s why March of Dimes is sounding the alarm and supporting efforts to improve screening, diagnosis and treatment for women with maternal mental health disorders. Most of these disorders can be treated once identified and diagnosed, and studies show that screening at least once during the perinatal period can help identify maternal depression. We also need better coordination of care between the provider who does the screening/referral, the primary care provider and the mental health provider to prevent women from falling through the cracks.

Lastly, it’s imperative we have better policies in place to support maternal mental health — such as ensuring women have Medicaid coverage 12 months after giving birth. I encourage readers to visit to learn more about this issue and use our new toolkit, which gives people an easy way to call on their legislators to support bills that prioritize the mental health of our nation’s moms and moms-to-be.

How would you define an “excellent healthcare provider”?

Every American deserve access to quality, affordable health care in our country regardless of wealth, race or geography. Sadly, never in the history of this country has there been adequate healthcare extended to all persons of color — certainly not to enslaved people nor many of their descendants. Too often I hear stories and read reports of moms who say they feel victimized by a healthcare system that prevents them from getting the same care others enjoy.

Families must have access to affordable coverage as well as culturally competent health care providers. Women of color should feel confident that providers understand their unique experiences and backgrounds and know that their concerns are being heard and addressed. For our part, we developed implicit bias training to improve patient-provider communications and treatment decisions, contributing to improved quality of care at a critical intervention point. The course provides an overview of implicit bias and structural racism, its impact on the maternal infant health crisis and strategies for providers to both mitigate racial bias in maternity care.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“Sometimes your best method of transportation is a leap of faith” by Margaret Shepard.

When you are trying to drive change, it’s sometimes impossible to have all the necessary information before a decision must be made. You must take the guidance and advice you have available and make the most informed decision you can in that moment. To do this, you must also have some faith in your own intellect and leadership skills. If you wait too long or delay your decision to gather “perfect” information, you may miss an opportunity you needed to take advantage of an opportunity. It’s finding a balance between information that you have and trusting the process.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

Yes. March of Dimes and RB’s Enfa portfolio of brands have worked together to create Better Starts for All. It is a program offering on-the-ground and virtual maternal health services targeting areas of great need. The initiative is designed to help all moms and babies have the best start in life regardless of social, cultural, and economic status.

We’re currently piloting the program in two maternal care deserts, Southeast Ohio and Wards 7 & 8 in Washington DC, representing rural and urban areas. Better Starts for All will be targeting those barriers to care I mentioned before, providing the following services to both meet the women face-to-face and create virtual accessibility:

  • Mobile Health Services: A mobile health vehicle brings prenatal care and related maternal health services to areas where access to services is limited.
  • Supportive Pregnancy Care (SPC): This group prenatal care model provides women clinical care, education and support in a group setting. We also have a telehealth option of SPC that offers robust virtual obstetric care in hard-to-reach communities.
  • Becoming A Mom: Women can get online prenatal education in group sessions that are moderated and tailored to the needs of each community.
  • Community Coalition: A coalition of community providers will develop and implement innovative strategies to increase access to care in maternity care deserts.

To make sure everyone is heard through our programs, we are also offering implicit bias training to our provider partners to enhance communication and trust with patients.

What are your favorite books, podcasts, or resources that inspire you to be a better healthcare leader? Can you explain why you like them?

Reading and listening to podcasts are things that I enjoy doing very much — a good leader never stops learning in my view. One selected reading I recommend is the journalism project and podcast ‘The 1619 Project” by Nikole Hannah-Jones, and in particular episode 4 entitled, “How the Bad Blood Started,” which shows that our health care system was never designed to be equitable. The entire initiative from The New York Times Magazine is excellent. As more people in our society acknowledge structural racism and search for historical context on how the systems we have today are so deeply entrenched with biases, this is one good resource. An author I particularly enjoy is Simon Sinek whose books are always thought provoking and provide specific and tangible tools for those in leadership across all sectors.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

As we enter the second year of this pandemic, we know that COVID-19 has compounded the maternal and infant health crisis and that we need to redouble our efforts. We just kicked off

March for Babies: A Mother of a Movement™, a virtual awareness and fundraising campaign to address the ongoing crisis by engaging the public to raise critical funds in support of life-saving research, programs and educational initiatives. Our rally call underscores the indispensable role of mom who is the heart of the family and at the center of our mission because the health of mom and baby are intertwined. We welcome everyone to join this movement for change that will help us achieve real, measurable improvements. We embrace anyone who wants to do more for moms and babies — and not just today, but every day. I believe all of us have a responsibility to ensure that we’re supporting moms and babies — whether that’s during a pandemic or not.

How can our readers follow you online?

I enjoy hearing from people on social media and engaging with them on the work we’re doing. You can find me on Twitter: @MarchofDimesCEO and Instagram: @marchofdimesceo.

Also, check out and follow BetterStarts4All on Instagram to learn more about this amazing initiative!

Thank you so much for these insights! This was so inspiring!

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