Caitlin Clement|11/17/2022|4 min read

Telelactation Connects Breastfeeding Patients to Lactation Consultants

Expanding access to maternal health care

women breastfeeding her baby while on video call with lactation consultant

While telehealth has gained a lot of attention for its use in the primary and urgent care space, its contribution to specialized areas of care is worth spotlighting. One of those areas of care that’s benefiting from the recent telehealth boom is lactation consulting and maternal care. 

From 2019 - 2020, the U.S. maternal mortality rate increased according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s maternal mortality statistics for 2020. The increase in maternal deaths is due to worsening maternal health outcomes. Currently, the U.S. ranks far higher in its maternal mortality rate per year than any other industrialized, high-income nation. 

This also follows worsening disparities with Black women facing three times the mortality risk and hispanic women seeing the largest mortality spike of any group in 2020 at 44%. So what does this increase in maternal mortality have to do with a lack of access to lactation consulting? Both are the product of a shortage of quality maternal health care and wellbeing in the U.S. healthcare system.

In this blog we’ll cover what telelactation is, how it’s opening the door to resources for breastfeeding patients and expanding hospitals, health systems and clinics maternal service offerings.

What is telelactation?

According to a 2019 telelactation study in the National Library of Medicine, Telelactation is a service that connects breastfeeding people to lactation consultants through synchronous or asynchronous technology and increases access to professional breastfeeding support in rural areas. 

Also mentioned in the study, when utilized, breastfeeding can help protect against short-term and long-term health effects. It’s important to note, however, that not all patients that give birth are able to breastfeed for a variety of reasons. Formula or combination feeding can be a perfectly healthy alternative. For those who wish to and are able to, telelactation can be an excellent resource for those with limited access to specialists like International Board-Certified Lactation Consultants (IBCLCs).

What is a lactation consultant (IBCLCs)?

IBCLCs are board certified health professionals that can offer parents and infants with milk supply, sore nipples, feeding positions, clogged ducts and any other factors concerning nursing. They will often work in hospitals and birthing centers or have their own private practice.

In order to become certified, a IBCLC must complete:

  • 90 hours of education covering breastfeeding, anatomy, nutrition and more.

  • 1,000 hours of lactation-specific clinical experience.

  • A rigorous exam.

  • Continuing education hours each year.

  • Recertification every five years.

Easier access to IBCLCs for hospitals and health systems

Having a lactation consultant on staff at your hospital or birthing center can make it easier to meet The Joint Commission Perinatal Care Measures while supporting better breastfeeding education. For those hospitals and organizations. 

If you’re not familiar with the JCP Care Measures, they are what need to be met in order to receive their Perinatal Care Certification. That certification indicates your program has met and exceeded strict standards of care for maternal, fetal and newborn health. With the recent industry push to a more value-based care model, investing in better maternal care is the next step in better executing patient outcomes.

However, as the demand for lactation consultants increases, finding enough IBCLCs licensed in your state to add to your staff could prove to be difficult. If you’re located in a rural hospital or clinic, then this can be even harder. Telelactation offers a solution to the shortage of specialists and removes the barrier of geography for patients and providers. 

Additionally, say your state doesn’t have many IBCLCs physically practicing there or they’re all populated to one area (typically a larger city). Telelactation gives you the option to tap into lactation consultants that are registered in multiple states without having to relocate. Providing a more efficient and cost effective solution. 

Expands access to rural patients

Speaking of hard to reach places, oftentimes, patients who live in rural areas don’t have the convenient access to the care they need and deserve. Specialists can be hard to come by in these more lightly populated areas, making a lactation consultant few and far between.

This lack of breastfeeding education and expertise has led to a decrease in the odds of rural breastfeeders continuing after hospital discharge or maintenance beyond a few months. In a 2018 study on the use of telelactation among rural breastfeeding mothers, it revealed that the introduction and use of a lactation consultant saw an increase in positive experiences and demand for underserved populations. 

It’s important to show that there is a demand and need for specialty care like breastfeeding in areas other than urban cities because, historically, rural hospitals have been underfunded and understaffed. The ability to bring the specialist to the patient without either ever having to leave their homes is expanding access to and revolutionizing the healthcare system. This is especially valuable for breastfeeding patients that often require care quickly. 

Bridge the gap between maternal care disparities

Women in general have been left out of medical research for decades and maternal health care specifically has been under researched and underfunded in many health systems. This is shown in the U.S. having the highest level of maternal mortality than any other high-income nation. Telehealth and its specialties like telelactation offer a platform that prioritizes these groups of patients to ensure they get the care they deserve.

Within the category of women, Black women have suffered more from poor medical treatment and lack thereof due to systemic racism and harsh prejudices. For every 100,000 live births in the U.S, Black women are three times more likely to die due to birth complications. This means that in a group of 100 women, 19 white women, 18 hispanic women and 55 Black women will die.

While certain populations of women experience more medical gaslighting than others, it’s important that the U.S. health system starts investing in the resources needed to provide better maternal health care. Telehealth can be an amazing tool in bridging that gap between patients and providers while giving patients the power to advocate for the care they deserve. 

More specialized patient data

Another one of the key benefits to telehealth is the increase in the patient pool that individual companies and hospitals have access to. It can be hard to spot health patterns or public health concerns with a smaller pool of patient data to work from. Being able to expand the patient network you have access to means more data to spot potential public health concerns and/or patterns. Especially when it comes to underrepresented research populations like women and birthing people. 

Increased data like this can catapult research capabilities for companies, health systems and clinics alike and use it to provide better patient care and see better patient outcomes in the long run. It can also be extremely useful in collecting the data needed to make better systematic investments in maternal care like telelactation. 

Powering Quality Maternal Health Care

While you’re still thinking about more ways you can invest in your maternal health care plan, we want to introduce OpenLoop. We partner with health systems, hospitals and clinics to provide them with a suite of telehealth and digital health services that put them back into the competitive landscape. OpenLoop matches their patients with our nationwide network of gynecologists, obstetricians, OBGYNs and other women and maternal health care providers. 

Interested in what our services can offer your organization? Get in touch here!

Our full suite of Telehealth Support Services include: