Anthropology Professor Receives Seed Fund for Research on Doula Care

From the June 2020 Desktop News | Dr. Holly Horan, an assistant professor of anthropology at UA, was recently awarded a seed fund from the Excellence in Community Engagement Awards for her work on measuring the impact of community doula care in central Alabama.

The award is one of two presented to Arts and Sciences faculty by the Council on Community-Based Partnerships, a program based in the Division of Community Affairs. These awards strive to recognize UA faculty, staff, and students who are making a significant impact in their communities through service, teaching, and research.

Horan and her partners, Dalia Abrams and Susan Petrus from the Birthwell Community Doula Project and Dr. Lydia Thurston from Samford University, are creating a data collection system for doulas, who work alongside expecting mothers and provide physical, mental and emotional support, as well as non-clinical resources and services before and after birth.

“We want to actively track their services as they’re providing them, prior to labor and delivery, and prior to any labor and delivery outcomes,” Horan said. “Many community doula programs collect data, but for practical and logistical reasons they submit it after all the care has been provided, which is fine if you’re just tracking the number of services and things like that. But if we want to make a connection between the provision of doula care and its influence on outcomes, we have to be able to collect that data in real time as the doulas are providing services.”

The team hopes to set up workshops, either in-person or virtually, to work with Birthwell doulas to develop and refine the data collection and to use this as an opportunity to show doulas how to prospectively collect client data. The $2,070 seed fund will go towards helping these doulas get to and from the workshops and provide lunch and materials that they will need throughout the day.

Horan, who is a doula herself, hopes that this data collection project will chip away at the idea that doulas are a “luxury” maternal health service, and help integrate them into the health care system and the lives of expecting mothers in Alabama, who have one of the highest maternal mortality rates in the country. The data collected by the doulas will be compared to data from Alabama Medicaid payers in order to see the effects of doula care for low-income mothers.

“We want to show the difference between outcomes with and without doula care, particularly for low-income populations,” Horan said. “Doulas with the Birthwell Community Doula Project specifically serve low-income families. So the idea is that, with this data set, we’ll not only be able to compare it to a state level, but also show the impact that doulas have on maternal and infant health for families that may be experiencing a myriad of difficult life circumstances.”

As the project begins, Horan says the support from the University, as well as the Council on Community-Based Partnerships, is encouraging to her. She hopes the project will help reshape the perception of doula care in the state, and help lead to better outcomes for all mothers and their children.

“Personally, I am super excited that The University of Alabama is supporting this research, especially given how maternal and infant health looks in the state right now,” Horan said. “Something like doula care is a relatively simple solution to many of our maternity care issues, but it’s also service that hasn’t seamlessly fit into our biomedical model of health care. But research shows us that doula care works. So I’m excited to see where this collaboration goes in terms of making a bigger impact in the state and elsewhere in the country.”