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USM researcher receives $400,000 NIH grant

An assistant research professor with the Public Health Program at USM’s Muskie School of Public Service has received a major three-year, $400,000 grant from the National Institutes of Health to study the health outcomes of new mothers in Maine. 

A photo of Kate Ahrens

Kate Ahrens’ work will focus on about 90,000 women pregnant between 2006 and 2020. She and her team will use all-payer health insurance data to look at the women’s diagnoses and medical care up to 24 months after giving birth and compare the results of those women living in rural Maine to those in more urban parts of the state.

The ultimate goal: See where any health disparities lie so those issues can be fixed. 

“This is really to inform the interventions that are being developed,” Ahrens said. “So if we see women with certain conditions during pregnancy, and there’s no contact with a health care service postpartum — like if a woman has depression during pregnancy and she has no follow-up mental health care in the first two years postpartum — that might be a sign that maybe we need to have more interventions for these women, to follow up with them, particularly for rural women who usually use health care less than urban women. What kind of telehealth or other interventions can we do to help these women?”

Ahrens has focused her research on maternal-child health for more than 10 years. This is the largest grant she has received and her first competitive grant from NIH, a federal agency responsible for some of the most sought-after biomedical and public health research grants in the country.

“I’m very excited,” Ahrens said. 

The grant will help pay for her time as a researcher and the time of her two collaborators, one at Yale School of Medicine and one at HealthPartners Institute for Medical Education in Minneapolis. The funding will also pay for a USM graduate student to work on the project 20 hours a week each semester. 

Ahrens decided to focus her research on Maine women both because their data is readily available — the Maine All Payer Claims Database is accessible to researchers in the state — and because 60% of Mainers live in rural areas. 

“We are ideal for studying rural-urban comparisons,” Ahrens said. 

Ahrens was notified of her grant this week and will begin her work as soon as possible. Ahrens is also one of Maine’s investigators for the multi-state Medicaid Outcomes Distributed Research Network and is a research investigator at the Maine Rural Health Research Center based at USM’s  Muskie School of Public Service.