February 21, 2022

Saving lives during childbirth, here and abroad

Lauded for her work on preventing maternal deaths, Fatu Forna, MD, wins our 2022 George Halvorson Community Health Leadership Award.

Fatu Forna, MD, at the Kaiser Permanente Gwinnett Comprehensive Medical Center in Georgia.

Fatu Forna, MD, MPH, knew her grandmother lost twin boys and almost died in childbirth. Therefore, when Dr. Forna turned 10 and her mother became pregnant with her sister, she was petrified.

Growing up in Sierra Leone, she saw too much death associated with having a child. Her birth country in West Africa had 7 million people and fewer than 10 doctors who specialized in obstetrics and gynecology.

“When my mother went into labor in the middle of the night, I hid in the back seat of the car when she headed to the hospital,” said Dr. Forna. “I thought she wouldn’t die if I was with her.”

Thankfully, her mother and sister were fine, but Dr. Forna was changed.

On a mission to protect mothers and babies

She immigrated to the United States at age 15. She knew what she wanted to do with her life.

“At the time, I didn’t even know what an obstetrician was,” Dr. Forna said. “But I knew I wanted to be a doctor who kept women from dying during childbirth.”

Her mom sent African clothing and handmade shoes for her aunt to sell, which paid for Dr. Forna’s first year at Florida A&M University in Tallahassee. She later became a fellow of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, lead for reproductive and maternal health at the World Health Organization in Sierra Leone, and director of perinatal safety and quality and chief of women’s services for Kaiser Permanente in Georgia.

Her dedication to preventing maternal deaths has earned her Kaiser Permanente’s 2022 George Halvorson Community Health Leadership Award. George Halvorson served as chairman and CEO of Kaiser Permanente from 2002 to 2013. The award honors exemplary leadership in advancing Kaiser Permanente’s mission to improve the health of the communities we serve.

Reducing barriers to care saves lives

In Georgia, which has one of the highest maternal death rates in the United States, Dr. Forna developed a new tracking system for Kaiser Permanente to investigate and address what causes maternal deaths. This work confirmed that maternal deaths were commonly linked with a lack of access to health care and care disparities caused by racial bias or poverty.

“Among Kaiser Permanente’s Georgia members, 52% of pregnant women are Black women,” Dr. Forna said. “In the U.S., Black women have 3 times the maternal mortality rate of white women.”

Building on the insights from the tracking system, she created a patient safety program that includes remotely monitoring blood pressure. “It’s probably one of the first and largest such programs in the country,” Dr. Forna said. Almost 1,500 women have enrolled since November 2019. Blood pressure readings taken in the home go directly to the patient’s electronic health record. The care team is alerted to unusual readings and a nurse calls the patient. The program expanded services for patients after they give birth, which includes special clinics for high-risk patients and provides access to social workers. Patients in the program are almost twice as likely to come to follow-up appointments after delivery and are more likely to have their blood pressure under control.

Dr. Forna also helped launch the first committee to review maternal deaths at Kaiser Permanente in Georgia. She then helped create and served as co-lead for a similar panel for Kaiser Permanente nationally.

Her work in maternal health at Kaiser Permanente was informed by her previous role with the World Health Organization in her home country of Sierra Leone, where Dr. Forna assisted the Ministry of Health with developing the country’s first program to address the causes of maternal deaths.

A lasting impact

Given her long-standing commitment to saving lives surrounding childbirth, Dr. Forna also co-founded Atlanta, Georgia-based nonprofit the Mama-Pikin Foundation, which works to improve maternal health in Sierra Leone. The organization’s name means “mother and child.”

Dr. Forna is no longer with Kaiser Permanente full time. She continues to serve on the national and Georgia Maternal Mortality Review committees for Kaiser Permanente and acts as a consultant to Kaiser Permanente. The impact of her important work remains.

“She sees a need, and she doesn’t just talk — she walks it and brings others along with her,” said Kate Koplan, MD, MPH, associate medical director, quality and patient safety, The Southeast Permanente Medical Group.

It’s hard to know how many lives Dr. Forna has helped save in her career so far. For her, the threat of death during or soon after childbirth is too prevalent and the impact too overwhelming to not try to save as many people as possible.

“This is my passion,” Dr. Forna said. “I’ve dedicated my career to making sure women don’t die while giving life.”