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Local UGA student spends semester helping rural women improve maternal health
Shivani Rangaswamy

Shivani Rangaswamy knew that women living in rural Georgia had little access to healthcare and maternal health resources.

It wasn’t until the University of Georgia undergraduate student began interning with the school’s Archway Partnership, however, that she realized just how significant the problem is — especially when it comes to low birth weight babies.

“I knew that birth weight gaps would exist,” Rangaswamy said, “but I was surprised that [the incidence of low birth weight] was 17 percent higher in some rural areas comparable to what you see in developing countries.”

Last year, Rangaswamy, a south Forsyth resident, worked alongside Michelle Elliott, an operations coordinator for the Archway Partnership, researching programs aimed at tackling risk factors and identifying providers available in rural Georgia communities to aid women and help improve their maternal health.

During her time as an intern, she created a resource guide to educate women about behaviors, such as smoking, stress and poor nutrition, that contribute to babies weighing less than 5.1 pounds at birth, which is considered low birth rate.

The guide, which is intended for health care workers in addition to pregnant women, offers local resources, including Medicaid, local health department and pregnancy center options. The guide also includes phone numbers so readers don’t need internet access to use it.

“Not only did [Rangaswamy] share her expertise, but she had an opportunity to see innovative work going on in that area in diverse communities across the state,” Elliott said. “I think she has a greater understanding of the challenge in rural communities now and how innovative they’ve been in adapting programs to needs in their communities.”

Babies born at a low birth rate are more likely to have health problems later in life, including diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, metabolic syndrome and obesity, all of which contribute to a poorer quality of life.

The health issues also put a strain on already-stressed rural health care systems and hospitals, many of which are struggling to stay open.

The issue — and the focus on improving healthcare in rural Georgia communities — is one that has reached the state level the past several years, with former north Forsyth district 26 state Rep. Geoff Duncan successfully sponsoring legislation that provides tax credits to taxpayers who donate to the financially struggling rural hospitals.

The bill, which was signed into law in April 2016, went into effect Jan. 1 of this year.

In the 2017 legislative session, Duncan was once again successful, amending the law to increase the amount of money Georgia residents who donate to rural hospitals can get back in tax credits.

Taxpayers can apply for a state income tax credit for either 90 percent of an individual’s contribution to an approved rural hospital or $5,000, whichever is less.

For a couple filing jointly, the credit can be 90 percent of the contribution or $10,000 — again, whichever is less.

Houston County Nurse Manager Chris Sikes said there is a dramatic divide between the number of low birth weight babies born in rural Georgia and those born in urban areas of the state, in part because resources to help pregnant women are not as accessible in many rural communities.  

“Georgia has some big counties,” Sikes said. “In Twiggs County, you may be in Dry Branch and the health department is 50 miles away in Jeffersonville. You might not know about these resources or how to navigate them.”

Rangaswamy said she found that in addition to patients, some health care providers were unfamiliar with the resources she had found throughout the course of her research.

She added the project was a way to make a difference as an undergraduate, rather than waiting until she’s a doctor, which she hopes to become. 

“I love working in science labs, but it’s hard to see the end goal,” she said. “The end goal here is changing someone’s life. There’s a tangible end goal as opposed to a published paper.”