Stylized illustration of a human fetus in utero

Helping health care workers help mothers

Modern medicine’s digital revolution has led to a data explosion. Patient charts, once tucked into manila folders and stored in musty file rooms, are now electronic. Doctors, nurses and patients can easily access lab results and appointment summaries on their computers or phones.

Having that data available, however, doesn’t necessarily mean health care workers are able to make good use of it all. “It’s nice to create a beautiful chart, but if you can’t act on it, then why bother?” says AkkeNeel Talsma, an associate professor in the College of Nursing and the Walter Schroeder chair for nursing research. “I look at an electronic health record as a digital filing cabinet – you still need a process to pull out information you need and put it together in a way that’s useful.”

Talsma is working on a project to do just that for an especially vulnerable group of patients.

New and expectant mothers in the United States lead those in all other developed countries in a variety of undesirable metrics. They are more than twice as likely to die from complications in pregnancy or childbirth. They have one of the highest rates of cesarean sections. They bear the greatest burden of chronic illness and unaffordable health care costs. And the U.S. has a higher rate of infant mortality than all other developed countries.

AkkeNeel Talsma
AkkeNeel Talsma

Talsma is creating an online computer resource called the Maternity Metrix Solution that she hopes will address those issues. It will let clinicians see their patients’ data all in one place, suggest next steps in care and connect them to useful references, policies and guidelines.

“So they have everything they need at their fingertips,” says Talsma, whose project is funded by a Bradley Catalyst grant from the UWM Research Foundation. “It’s like a Fitbit of how health care is delivered.”

Talsma believes it will help reduce the fragmented nature of the patient care process. Too often, she says, a patient will see a general practitioner and a nurse and a specialist, but there’s not enough communication among them about the case as a whole. Moreover, it’s often up to each clinician to pursue extra information about potential treatments on their own.

“What’s really striking,” Talsma says, “is when I talk to clinicians and ask them, ‘Hey, what do you do when you need information?’ They admit that they’re Googling at night trying to learn what’s out there so they can take it back to work in the morning.”

Maternity Metrix Solution will help address these gaps. To refine her idea and help bring it to market, Talsma participated in the I-Corps program, offered in Wisconsin exclusively through UWM. Backed by the National Science Foundation, I-Corps teaches faculty members and graduate students how to convert their research discoveries into products and startup companies.

I-Corps encouraged Talsma to conduct extensive interviews with those who might use her product. Doctors and nurses told her they needed an easier and better way to access data faster.

Talsma and her colleagues are now building the bones of Maternity Metrix Solution and plan to initially roll it out in hospitals. Eventually, Talsma envisions the online platform serving not only hospital doctors and nurses but also pediatricians, OB-GYNs and family practitioners.

She believes this improved way to curate patient information will not only lead to better results for individual patients, but also serve larger populations.

“If you look only at one case at a time, you get one picture,” Talsma says. But having data that paints a larger picture could encourage public health and city officials to get involved.

It would move medicine beyond a series of individual diagnoses to improving treatment at the community level. “In my dreams,” Talsma says, “that’s where this could end up.”