Crowdsourcing to Advance Maternal Health Research

Five pregnant women sit in a circle talking with two large windows in the background.

Challenge competitions offer a mechanism to quickly bring in diverse voices and expertise to innovate and problem-solve. Such crowdsourcing initiatives have a proven track record of success. For example, the Rapid Acceleration of Diagnostics (RADx®) Tech initiative led by the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering (NIBIB) transformed the COVID-19 testing landscape in the United States. Launched in April 2020, the initiative was able to validate, manufacture, and deploy self-tests by fall 2020, increasing U.S. testing capacity by billions.

This month, NICHD and partners launched two challenges focused on improving our nation’s maternal health: the RADx® Tech for Maternal Health Challenge and the Connecting the Community for Maternal Health Challenge. Both are part of NIH’s Implementing a Maternal health and PRegnancy Outcomes Vision for Everyone (IMPROVE) initiative.

Pregnancy-related deaths are higher in the United States than in any other high-income country. About 700 people die each year from complications related to pregnancy or giving birth. Thousands more experience severe maternal morbidities. The racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic disparities in these maternal health outcomes are stark. There are also disparities by age, education, and geographic region. The U.S. maternal health crisis is exacerbated by the fact that millions of women of childbearing age live in areas with limited access to maternity care.

Improving Postpartum Outcomes in Regions that Lack Maternity Care

The RADx® Tech for Maternal Health Challenge—co-sponsored by NICHD, NIBIB, and the NIH Office of the Director—aims to develop easy-to-use technologies for people or their local health clinics to assess whether additional medical care is needed after delivery. A large proportion of U.S. maternal deaths occur during the postpartum period—the first year after giving birth or the end of a pregnancy. Most of these deaths are preventable. With early identification, many life-threatening, pregnancy-related complications can be treated.

The challenge prioritizes home-based or point-of-care diagnostic devices, wearables, and other remote sensing technologies that are developed sustainably and at low cost. These technologies also should enable continuous healthcare monitoring during the first postpartum year. Possible solutions could include a wearable tracker that monitors blood pressure or an at-home urine test.

With a total prize purse of up to $8 million, the RADx® Tech for Maternal Health Challenge invites submissions external link from U.S.-based innovators or organizations by November 1.

Enhancing Research Capacity in Communities

Strong community engagement in research is essential to ensuring that the specific priorities of diverse and disproportionately affected populations are addressed. Community-based and advocacy organizations are on the frontlines of maternal health work and are well-poised to address the needs and desires of the communities they serve.

The Connecting the Community for Maternal Health Challenge aims to encourage U.S.-based nonprofit organizations to develop the infrastructure and capabilities necessary to conduct maternal health research. Importantly, the challenge does not require a partnership with an academic medical center or university. Rather, it seeks to provide support to nonprofits that are embedded in the community, including advocacy and faith-based organizations. In addition to competing for $3 million in cash prizes, participating organizations will receive training and mentoring in writing research proposals and building research infrastructure. Research ideas must align with the goals of the IMPROVE initiative, which aims to reduce preventable causes of maternal death and improve maternal health before, during, and after delivery. Interested non-academic, 501(c)(3) organizations must apply to participate external link by September 29.

In the coming months, I look forward to seeing the innovative technology solutions and research ideas that our challenge participants propose.

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