TERRE HAUTE, Ind. (AP) — Jack Turman has dedicated much of his professional life to research and programs that reduce infant mortality and help women have healthy babies.
"It's my passion, my priority and my area of expertise," said Turman, who last fall became dean of Indiana State University's College of Nursing, Health and Human Services.
So it's only fitting that he's part of a new task force that will spend the next year developing ways to bring down Indiana's infant mortality rate, which at 7.7 deaths per 1,000 live births, gave Indiana the nation's sixth highest infant mortality rate in 2011, the Tribune-Star reported (http://bit.ly/M1dokt ).
The National Leadership Academy for the Public's Health has selected the Terre Haute-based Rural Health Innovation Collaborative to lead the regional task force, which includes Stephanie Laws, RHIC's executive director; Turman; and Elizabeth Burrows, chief executive officer of Vermillion-Parke Community Health Center.
The Indiana Department of Health also has assigned one staff member to the West Central Indiana Infant Mortality Reduction Task Force.
Gov. Mike Pence has described Indiana's infant mortality ranking as "deplorable," and he challenged participants in a statewide summit last fall to "think fresh" about ways to reduce deaths in children's first year of life.
New to Indiana, Turman said it made him "really happy" that the governor made infant mortality reduction a public health priority.
The task force will focus on an eight-county area — Clay, Greene, Owen, Parke, Putnam, Vermillion, Vigo and Sullivan — but members say their work will have statewide impact.
The task force is one of 29 teams from around the country chosen to participate in the third year of the national health leadership academy. It is the first Indiana team to be selected.
For one year, the leadership academy will provide training and support. Representatives also will visit Terre Haute, learn about the community and region "and help us as we design our programming, goals and objectives," Turman said.
The state department of health would like to see a successful model that can be used statewide.
"Our task is to work in partnership with the communities to understand the problems that result in infant mortality and work with them to develop strategies to address the problems," Turman said.
What doesn't work is going into a neighborhood and using a top-down, "this is what we'll do" approach, he said. Instead, "We need to go and form relationships and learn from them what their priorities are and what they think we need to focus on."
One major problem in Indiana is the high number of women who smoke during pregnancy. "It's through the roof," Turman said. "Nowhere that I've been has smoking (during pregnancy) been such a huge issue."
The most current state statistics reveal that 16.6 percent of pregnant women in Indiana smoke, compared with the national average of 9.1 percent. Vigo County's statistic is even higher, coming in at 21.1 percent. In Owen County, more than 30 percent of pregnant women smoke, Turman said.
Other challenges contributing to high infant mortality in Indiana include lack of access to prenatal health care and poor nutrition. Often, the overriding problem is poverty, which correlates with more smoking, poor nutrition and poor access to health care.
There are many health care resources in the region, Turman said, "but getting people to them — that's an issue."
Another problem is sleep-related accidents, such as infants who may suffocate due to co-sleeping, when a mom, dad and baby sleep in one bed. Again, that often is linked to poverty, he said. "We've taught moms how to create a safe sleeping environment with a large Tupperware tub or a drawer from a chest of drawers" if they can't afford a crib, he said.
The risk of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome can be reduced by placing babies on their back to sleep. "We can focus on some pretty simple outreach on safe sleep habits," Turman said.
He added, "There are lots of cool things we can do" and simple things that can make a difference.
He's already working with technology experts to develop app-based technology to get information out to moms and moms-to-be.
He anticipates the task force will collaborate with the March of Dimes here. "It's a very forward thinking group" with a lot of information. "We don't need to re-invent the wheel," he said.
While at the University of Nebraska Medical Center from 2010 to 2013, Turman developed a community partnership to improve birth outcomes among African-Americans, and he previously founded the Center for Premature Infant Health and Development at the University of Southern California's Keck School of Medicine.
Information from: Tribune-Star, http://www.tribstar.com