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Quality of Care in NICU Is Determined by Race, Study Says

White Babies May Get Better Treatment in the NICU Than Others — That's a Huge Problem

The quality of care an infant receives in the NICU could be largely determined by the child's race and ethnicity, according to a study published by the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Researchers at Stanford University School of Medicine in California looked at the quality of care of nearly 19,000 babies in 134 neonatal intensive care units across California who were born between 2010 and 2014. Their findings were extremely disappointing. The study found that "[there was] clinically and statistically significant racial and/or ethnic variation in quality of care between NICUs as well as within NICUs."

Who received the best care? The white newborns, followed by Asian babies. Black infants, Hispanic babies, and any children classified as "other" (read: American Indian and Alaska natives) had even lower scores . . . significantly lower scores.

Researchers looked at several variables when it came to measuring the progress of underweight babies: if infants were administered steroids to help their lungs, got an eye exam, contracted an infection in the hospital, and were given breast milk after discharge. After reviewing the data, they drew a few important conclusions. Black and Hispanic babies were less likely to get certain treatments, like antenatal steroids, which are given to pregnant women who are likely to have a preemie. They were also less likely to get an eye exam and breast milk and were more likely to come down with an eye infection, according to the study.

Although the white children scored higher than black and Hispanic infants in most categories, there were some points where they scored worse. Black babies, for example, grew at a faster rate compared to white babies. And in some instances, they got better care in certain hospitals that were studied.

But the biggest problem is that in hospitals that were known for having higher-quality care, the disparity between white babies and children of other races and ethnicities grew significantly. And the fact remained true even after researchers controlled for things like whether or not the moms got prenatal care and length of pregnancy.

Although the study is new, the negative correlation between race and prenatal and postnatal care isn't. Case in point: infant mortality rates. Countries like Norway, Finland, and Monaco lead the world with low mortality rates — and although the US isn't too far behind, the chance of losing one's child does come down to race in some cases. And FYI: given the amount of money the US spends on health care, our mortality rate should be much lower.

White women in the US lose their infants at the rate of nations like Finland and Norway, while the mortality rate for black women is twice as high. And if you're an unmarried black woman, the chances of losing your infant are even higher.

Researchers agree that things need to change in terms of the quality of care infants and their mothers are getting across the board. The study's conclusion? "Providing feedback of disparity scores to NICUs could serve as an important starting point for promoting improvement and reducing disparities."

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