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Cao receives $2.2 million grant to support maternal health care for underserved women with SUD

Aize Cao, Ph.D. feature image

In 2019, 62 women in Tennessee died while pregnant or within one year of pregnancy. Among these women, 34 percent had substance use disorder (SUD) and 29 percent had a concurrent mental health condition.

This substance use during pregnancy is a significant public health crisis that impacts both the mother and the developing fetus. It is associated with an increased risk of adverse health outcomes for both parties, including poor birth; neonatal abstinence syndrome; mental health or behavioral disorders; post-partum complications such as psychological distress; and mental health disorders and attention problems for both mom and the children.

“The most alarming data point,” says Aize Cao, Ph.D., associate professor, biomedical data science, “is that 81 percent of maternal deaths related to substance use disorder could be preventable. It is evident from research that substance use treatment can yield positive outcomes for pregnant women, including increased abstinence and improved birth outcomes.”

Aize Cao

Dr. Cao., the PI, and Co-PI Dr. Lloyda Williamson, professor and chair of the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, and their team plan to address these public health challenges. The team received a $2.2 million grant from the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA).

“Our main goal for this grant is to develop a comprehensive data analytics infrastructure model to support maternal health care for underserved women with substance use disorders,” says Dr. Cao.

The primary patient cohort in the study is pregnant and postpartum women enrolled and treated at the Elam Mental Health Center at Meharry Medical College.

“By leveraging data science techniques, we aim to generate evidence-based predictions related to disparities and health outcomes in this population,” she says.

The team will also leverage health informatics and machine learning techniques to a state and nationwide patient cohort, using EHR from Meharry, Nashville General Hospital (NGH), the Tennessee State Department of Health, and the National Institutes of Health’s All of Us program. This step will lead to a deeper understanding of pregnant or postpartum women with SUD.

Specifically, the team will:

  • Develop a data infrastructure and identify social determinant of health factors and treatment disparities among pregnant and postpartum women at Meharry and NGH;
  • Explore brain functional connectivity and its association with substance use relapse among postpartum women enrolled at Elam Mental Health Center, and
  • Identify SUD women at risk of severe maternal health outcome and mental health disorders by expanding data to state and nationwide.

“That means we will extend our work to not only find disparities for the women at Elam, but also provide evidence based in improving health outcomes and overall well-being for women across the state and country who are at risk of substance use relapse and severe maternal health outcome,” says Dr. Cao. “That will affect not only their health, but also the life of their children.”

The HRSA grant will also advance data science training for the predominantly minority medical and graduate students enrolled at Meharry, helping to increase diversity in the field.

Other team members include Bishnu Sarker, assistant professor, computer science and data science; and Ashutosh Singhal, Ph.D., chief data officer and associate vice president of clinical data stewardship, Enterprise Data and Analytics. Samuel MacMaster, Ph.D., executive director of the Elam Center, will serve as lead evaluator.

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