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Learning from the Infant Formula Crisis: How Innovation Can Improve Health Equity

No child should be without proper nutrition. That’s why it’s been so heartbreaking to witness the infant formula shortage happening across America. I’m sure you share my sympathy for the millions of parents who are stressed out and struggling to feed their newborn children. While the formula crisis has touched individuals of all backgrounds, the ones most affected are women, people of color, those living in poverty and infants with complex medical needs.

It's important to closely examine the root causes of the shortage, from product recalls to supply chain challenges to federal restrictions. At the same time, we should explore new solutions to better manage and improve infant nutrition going forward.

In the current crisis, frantic parents are going to great lengths to find baby formula, from searching multiple stores to securing shipments from out-of-state relatives. Many of these individuals receive assistance from the federal Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC), which accounts for almost half of the infant formula purchased in the United States and services 1.2 million formula-fed children. The precarious economic situation of these mothers simply adds to the stress and challenge of caring for an infant.

But imagine, in the not-too-distant future, a different scenario:

A low-income mother on WIC desperately needs a specific brand of formula for her infant. She receives a text from WIC, letting her know that a drugstore nearby has the product in stock. Her husband hops on his bicycle, enters the store and searches the shelves, only to find that the formula is already gone. But using the app, he calls a free Uber to take him to another drugstore 10 miles away that has the right formula. Back at home, the mother sends a text to WIC asking if it is OK to dilute the formula to make it last longer. She receives a text back saying that it’s not a good idea, because it could create serious medical problems for the child. Then she receives a push notification from the app with information about useful programs and financial resources in her area for new mothers. Finally, her husband arrives with the coveted formula and she feeds her baby with enormous relief.

Technology can be quickly deployed and enables fast solutions when it matters most—in real time, and far faster than larger decisions that require alignment across many different stakeholders. Communication tools like those utilized in the above scenario could dramatically boost infant health and the well-being of families. While the technology is readily available today, most states lack the funding to employ it in their information systems.

Even beyond the current crisis, this kind of innovation could help us tackle the bigger-picture challenge of infant nutrition. In America, millions of infants are at risk even before they’re born. Babies with malnutrition can experience negative effects that last a lifetime, including cognitive deficits, lower academic achievement and behavioral problems. In fact, nutrition is the single greatest influence on babies in the womb and during the early years of life.

Through real-time, omni-channel communication, mothers could learn more about nutritional needs, find a doctor, get answers to questions, identify local resources and receive important health tips. At the same time, WIC administrators could use data analysis to identify women who appear to be at greater risk and reach out to them proactively.  While our current focus is on infants, WIC plays an increasingly crucial role in supporting healthy pregnancies since sub-optimal nutrition is one of the leading drivers of at-risk pregnancies. By simplifying eligibility for busy pregnant mothers through text-based assessments triggered by their first purchase or doctor's visit, we can reverse the trend of declining enrollments and get ahead of these challenges.  Lastly, by deriving insights from the rich datasets that exist but are underutilized, we can better understand and address health inequities.

As someone who has had high-risk pregnancies, the issues of maternal and infant health are very personal to me. I’m directly involved in Gainwell’s WIC solutions, which support nine state programs and 17 Indian Tribal Organizations. By helping infants receive the nutrients they need during the first 1,000 days of life, WIC plays a vital role in long-term growth and development.

But I believe we can do more. As state and federal legislators seek solutions for the infant formula crisis—from easing restrictions on formula brands to ramping up production—it’s important to learn from the current situation and take action now to achieve better results in the future. Through two-way communication and advanced data analytics, we could efficiently increase health equity while elevating the quality of care.

As I write this, additional federal funding is becoming available. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services is dedicating $350 million to help states strengthen maternal and child health. It is my hope that at least a portion of these funds be allocated to modernizing WIC systems and taking advantage of the many digital tools that exist today to connect parents and their children with the very basic resources they need to survive and thrive.

Infant health is a complicated subject, and no one claims to have all the answers. However, one thing is certain: every mother and child deserves quality care. Using available technology tools, we could enhance the current system and help improve infant health outcomes across the nation.

About the Author

Veronica Adamson is the General Manager of Human Services and Public Health at Gainwell. She is a passionate advocate and transformer of women and children’s health, a calling that resulted from her own experience with two high-risk pregnancies. She previously led Philips Global Obstetrics Monitoring Solutions business, one of the world’s leading fetal and maternal solution businesses and drove the deployment of COVID-19 wearable fetal monitoring innovations in the first months of the pandemic. She is a frequent speaker on technology innovations in maternal health and has deep expertise in driving healthcare economic and clinical outcomes through eco-system partnerships. She partners with States, the World Bank / IFS, the Administration, HHS, non-profits, and other private companies to improve equitable health outcomes through thoughtful technology innovation.

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