Activities of the Spafford Endowed Chair

During their respective terms as the Belle S. Spafford Endowed Chair, Jane Dyer and Aster Tecle will engage in a three-year pilot program and study, Perinatal Community Health Workers to Support African Refugee Women and Families, which will establish a community-based program that provides support, information, and cultural liaison services for pregnant African refugee women in Salt Lake City. Keri Gibson, a physician at the U’s Redwood Health Clinic, where the enrolled patients will be treated, will join Dyer and Tecle as a co-researcher on the project.

Refugee women often experience pregnancy in isolation because they may not speak English, may be unfamiliar with prenatal care, and have left extended family and friends in their country of origin or in refugee camps in Africa. “While African refugee women are certainly not all alike, most do share similar cultural traditions,” explained Tecle. “Preventative care or health screenings are unknown concepts. Health concerns, cultural beliefs and preferences about pregnancy and birth may be in opposition to those common in western healthcare.” Many of these women find themselves without culturally-appropriate explanations and support, and experience poorer pregnancy outcomes when compared to other Utah women.

Based on Utah Birth Certificate data, African-born refugee women are more likely than White, non-Hispanic women to experience inadequate prenatal care and obstetrical problems such as pregnancy-induced high blood pressure or seizures, very large or very small infants and heavy bleeding at birth. They also may have existing health issues like anemia, lung disease, or renal disease that can complicate pregnancy and can contribute to serious birth problems such as dysfunctional labor, fetal distress and even infant death. “Many of these problems can be prevented or made less serious with proper prenatal care, information, explanations and self-care measures,” said Gibson.

To address these challenges, this project will train professional perinatal community health workers (PCHW) from the same cultures as the pregnant women participating in the project. The PCHWs will help mothers-to-be overcome language barriers, navigate the complex U.S. healthcare system, become familiar with U.S. prenatal care and delivery practices and more. The research project will enroll and serve at least 25 Somali women and 15 South Sudanese women receiving care at the University of Utah Redwood Health Center. In addition to the benefits provided to the study participants, the project will also benefit the PCHWs, who will gain valuable work experience, new skills, exposure to higher education and increased employment options.

“Our long-term goal is to develop a sustainable program that addresses isolation during pregnancy by helping expectant mothers receive appropriate information, assistance and care,” said Dyer. “We expect this to result in healthier mothers and babies, and a replicable model for a program that can help other groups of women.”