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UB Researchers to Develop Communication Strategies to Improve Lives of Mothers, Infants in WNY

By Rachel Cala

Release Date: October 23, 2012

BUFFALO, N.Y. -- Significant change can stem from a small adjustment. In the case of infant and mother mortality in Buffalo, improving communication can save lives.

The University at Buffalo's Ophelia Morey, associate librarian in the Health Sciences Library, and Helen Wang, assistant professor in the Department of Communication in the UB College of Arts and Sciences, are working to improve prenatal and perinatal health by combining their experience in community outreach, information-seeking behavior, communication, and community health and behavior.

Their project, "Healthy Moms, Healthy Babies: Developing Information Communication Strategies for Reducing Infant and Maternal Mortality Rates in Buffalo," will conduct research with Buffalo Prenatal-Perinatal Network Inc. (BPPN) aimed at encouraging safer pregnancies.

UB's Civic Engagement and Public Policy initiative (CEPP) awarded the pair a grant for their research. Using resources from various disciplines in academia, Morey and Wang will launch a project to create a more knowledgeable community that results in more successful births and healthier environments for mothers and their babies. UB Civic Engagement fellows receive up to $3,500 for their community-based research projects.

Morey and Wang say their work is about "social responsibility," and their roles in the community and university will intertwine as they pursue their research. Morey is coordinator of Community Outreach Service at HSL and a committee member for the Near East West Side Task Force and the P" Collaborative of WNY Inc. Wang is research assistant professor for the Department of Community Health and Health Behavior in the UB School of Public Health and Health Professions. Wang's extensive studies in communication and public health and Morey's history in Buffalo and health literacy outreach work as a health sciences librarian provide a strong foundation for their research.

"It doesn't become personal until you are in the community and hear the stories," says Morey, who as a volunteer was shocked by the infant/mother mortality rates in Buffalo.

"I know those neighborhoods -- I grew up in those neighborhoods," she says.

Their project was born during a course taught by Wang, "Information and Communication Technologies for Wellness Promotion," that Morey attended. A class assignment prompted Morey to develop a proposal that is applicable and useful in her community outreach efforts, and allows the two faculty members to use their unique perspectives to develop the project.

They will work with BPPN to target groups associated with high-risk pregnancies and births due to little or no prenatal/perinatal care, including young substance-using, homeless, refugee or immigrant mothers, groups that offer research opportunities for lowering infant/mother mortality rates.

The work of previous researchers with similar goals can be traced historically to Buffalo, and they show not only the constant need, but the potential for societal progress. According to Planned Parenthood of WNY's website, during in the 19th and 20th centuries, most birth-related fatalities resulted from a lack of knowledge. Since then, New York State has repealed obscenity laws forbidding women from pursuing information and resources about reproductive health, continuing to lower the infant/mother mortality rates. Promising results such as these make this type of research worthwhile, Morey and Wang say.

Research of this nature has the potential to transcend statistics, and change lives on the most personal, intimate level. "Applied work grounded in theories," is what Wang identifies as the key to success for this project. The formula for building what the pair refers to as an effective "communication infrastructure" incorporates many different systems of communication and foundational information seeking.

There are two main layers of information Morey and Wang are working to permeate. They will seek geographical information, in order to target neighborhoods that are in need, as well as behavioral patterns among clients, that will lead to effective developments in information communication strategies.

Small changes to fine-tune information communication systems between health-care providers, community outreach services and mothers will lead to a more effective system. Morey and Wang have met with the CEO of the non-profit BPPN to begin developing preliminary plans that involve the management, workers and clients.

The goal is to acknowledge the needs of the community, and to facilitate health information communication that will meet these needs. Morey and Wang hope the research will help ensure that all mothers, no matter what the circumstances, have access to prenatal and perinatal care.