For Dr. Kimberlydawn Wisdom, making sure that Black women and their babies receive proper medical care is personal. Her own aunt passed away right after childbirth, and her mother faced health challenges when Wisdom was a child. These experiences motivated the Connecticut native — who has lived in Detroit for more than 30 years — to go into healthcare and address its alarming disparities.
As a medical practitioner and as Henry Ford Health System’s senior vice president of community health and equity and chief wellness and diversity officer, Wisdom focuses on infant mortality and maternal child health, chronic disease, unintended pregnancy, and physical inactivity. In 2011, Wisdom founded the Women-Inspired Neighborhood Network: Detroit, a program dedicated to improving women’s access to healthcare and reducing infant mortality in the city.
Infant and maternal mortality rates for Black Americans have historically been higher than those for other races. “Black women are two, three times more likely to experience a premature-related death than [their] white counterparts,” Wisdom says, noting that the maternal mortality rate for Black women spans all income and education levels. Medical practitioners often dismiss Black women’s health concerns, thus undertreating them or failing to provide potentially life-saving treatment. Studies have even shown white medical students and residents falsely believing Black patients have higher pain tolerances due to biological differences.
“If we’re going to really reverse some of these trends and truly heal populations with people that have significant challenges and persistently see health disparities, it’s going to take a very diverse village to help address these problems,” Wisdom says. “And it starts with understanding the historical factors that have contributed to these myths.”
In the years immediately before Wisdom created WIN Network: Detroit, the Black infant mortality rate in the city was more than double the white infant mortality rate here. Figures for 2009-2011 show an average Black infant death rate of 15 deaths per 1,000 live births, compared with 6.5 for white infants during the same three-year period, according to the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services. And the department’s most recent numbers aren’t any better: Detroit’s Black infant mortality rate averaged 15.9 deaths per 1,000 live births for 2016-2018, more than double the 7.1 average white infant mortality rate for the same three-year period.
WIN Network: Detroit is a collaboration between Henry Ford Health System, Ascension Michigan, Oakwood Healthcare System, and the Detroit Medical Center, partners of the Detroit Regional Infant Mortality Reduction Task Force. The program provides pregnant women ages 18 to 34 with prenatal-care group sessions led by certified nurse midwives and community health workers. During these sessions, eight to 12 moms-to-be meet with the community health workers and midwives to discuss breastfeeding, nutrition, proper sleep, vitamins, and the mitigation of domestic violence.
The community health workers — the “secret sauce” of the program, as Wisdom calls them — also conduct home visits that continue through the baby’s first birthday.
WIN Network: Detroit has had a life-changing impact on children, mothers, and their support systems. Since the program began its group prenatal sessions in 2016, more than 260 women have completed them. The babies’ average gestational age has been 38.5 weeks — an amazing feat for these women, who Wisdom says would have otherwise been at high risk for having preterm births. She hopes WIN Network: Detroit will eventually go beyond providing resources through the children’s first year of life and support them during their postsecondary education.
“I just feel very fortunate and blessed to work with such stellar professionals that really drive huge change and help women address these social needs in a very comprehensive, loving, non-judgmental way,” Wisdom says. “That trust factor of community health systems and healthcare is so key.”