A team of researchers at the University of Kentucky is working to reduce the number of deaths and injuries among pregnant and postpartum women through an online training program for UK students in helping professions across nine UK colleges.

“Kentucky’s maternal mortality rates are the second highest in our nation and highlight the Commonwealth’s need for greater capacity to address the goal of reducing maternal injuries and deaths due to violence,” said Ann Coker, PhD, the principal investigator of the study. She is the Verizon Wireless Endowed Chair in the Center for Research on Violence Against Women (CRVAW) and a professor of epidemiology in the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology in the UK College of Medicine.

The study titled “Violence Intervention and Prevention (VIP) Corps to Reduce Maternal Injuries and Deaths due to Violence” aims to create a centralized training and education program to prevent and mitigate violence. It’s funded by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office on Women’s Health with $600,000 over five years. 

The project involves students representing the Colleges of Medicine, Education, Nursing, Arts and Sciences, Public Health, Health Sciences, Pharmacy, Dentistry and Social Work, who will go into helping professions — careers that focus on assisting, supporting and guiding people in various ways to improve their well-being.

Working alongside Coker as co-investigators on the project are Heather Bush, PhD, acting dean of the UK College of Public Health (CPH), professor of biostatistics and Kate Spade and Company Endowed Professor in CRVAW; Hartley Feld, PhD, a clinical nurse specialist in community and public health who is also an assistant professor in the College of Nursing; and Dana Quesinberry, JD, DrPH, an assistant professor in the Department of Health Management in CPH. 

The researchers’ ultimate goal is to build a group of trained professionals to specifically address this issue, similar to the Peace Corps or AmeriCorps.

“In Kentucky, 80% to 90% of maternal deaths are due to partner or family violence, substance use, and anxiety or depression. All three social determinants of health ARE preventable,” said Coker. “With our online training, we seek to grow the next generation of helping professionals able to prevent maternal deaths and injuries by recognizing those underlying causes among pregnant or postpartum people.”

“When I was a practicing attorney, I witnessed the opioid epidemic carve a painful path in Kentucky’s families,” said Quesinberry. “We know if we can protect mothers with data-informed preventive measures then we have hope for them and their families to thrive.”

To build the capacity to prevent these types of injuries and deaths, the research team has developed two interactive, online training programs for students seeking careers as educators, counselors, social workers, doctors and nurses.

In this randomized controlled trial, researchers will compare the effectiveness of the two trainings to change participants’ knowledge, attitudes and skills to identify risk factors for maternal deaths and injuries.

“We want to prepare the next cohort of UK students as helping professionals by combining the training they are already receiving here with supplemental online learning to boost our students’ competency and compassion in this area so critical to Kentucky’s future,” said Feld.

Over the next three years, approximately 3,000 students across the nine colleges will have the opportunity to participate in this study. Interested students can contact Ashley Roark (Ashley.Roark@uky.edu) for more information.

The second goal of the study is to build a comprehensive Maternal Injury Surveillance System for Kentucky to include pregnancy-associated and pregnancy-related deaths and injuries. The team works closely with the Kentucky Injury Prevention and Research Center (KIPRC) and the UK Center for Clinical and Translational Science to create this public health surveillance system.

“With data, there is power to advocate for prevention and impact policy. The data we collect here are not just numbers, they are life stories and lived experiences of mothers — data that calls for change. As a biostatistician, I am part of a team transforming data into change and the promise of a healthier Kentucky,” said Bush.

You can learn more about VIP Corps online here.