Guest post by Tigest Tamrat, research coordinator, HITLAB, and master’s student at Columbia University School of Public Health

As I approached the sea of green and blue bags flashing the “Healthy Communities Promote Healthy Minds and Bodies” slogan around the Washington Convention Center, my cab driver jokingly asked if I was attending a more formal variation of the Occupy Wall Street movement.

With more than 13,000 public health professionals congregating for the annual American Public Health Association (APHA) conference, this was just as deserving of news coverage.

One of the first things that struck me was the event’s physical span and topical breadth. The conference stretched over five days and covered six city blocks. In terms of expertise, researchers presented in more than 1,000 scientific sessions and addressed a diverse range of public health topics.

Considering the significance of this conference for the both the global and domestic public health community, I took on the exciting role as a panelist on international women’s health, presenting  HITLAB’s findings on the use of mHealth for improving prenatal and neonatal health outcomes. This research revealed that mHealth plays an integral role in comprehensive approaches to expedite emergency referrals and facilitate communication between health workers for obstetric and neonatal care. The systematic literature review demonstrated the ways in which mobile technologies bolster preventive services through the promotion of antenatal care and targeted dissemination of critical prenatal information.

Despite these gains, the review identified a paucity of research regarding funding and policy frameworks for incorporating and scaling mHealth-based maternal and newborn initiatives into the broader health system.

My panel included three individuals who had researched women’s health in varying parts of the world such as the Philippines, Mexico, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Their work involved topics such as the legalization of abortion, de-stigmatization of sexual and gender-based violence survivors, and integration of family planning and immunization services. The research projects attracted a sizeable audience composed primarily of women – with the exception of one man who braved the estrogen-loaded session. In the dialogue following the presentations, the gender imbalance almost seemed to facilitate an intimate forum for candidly discussing and exchanging practical experiences on issues of maternal and women’s health.

Panelist Tahilin Sanchez-Karver presented Claudia Diaz’s qualitative study on health workers’ perceptions following the decriminalization of abortions in Mexico, and provoked a lot of questions from audience members who probed on the quality of services provided despite clinicians’ adverse attitudes towards pregnancy terminations. Other audience members were confounded by the mismatch between the ostracism of sexual and gender-based violence survivors and the same community’s empathy in alleviating the trauma suffered by those abused, as evidenced by panelist Stella Babalola’s study. Catherine Fort’s examination of transferring lessons from the high immunization success in the Philippines to promote family planning also garnered attention from professionals who sought insight on new approaches to address the lag in reproductive health needs.

While these socio-behavioral studies highlighted the psychological aspects of delivering health services, our mHealth presentation also demonstrated an unconventional dimension to improving health outcomes. Considering the pervasiveness of mHealth and incipiency of related focused research, the study ignited interest in the application of mobile technologies to enhance other aspects of women and children’s health such as family planning and immunization schedules.

In general, the discussion explored the limited progress toward achieving the globally endorsed goals of reducing maternal mortality, and this observation stimulated further interchange on the demonstrated steps to tackle this issue. The topic of maternal and child health, to me, had always been nebulous and, at times, a discouraging area of study due to the complex interaction among health systems’ resources, sociocultural contexts and positioning of women, and multitude of involved stakeholders.

My co-panelists’ presentations complicated these relationships and further contributed to the intricacies of improving health for this target population. By the same token, the constructive dialogues and commitment of public health professionals to hone in on these issues and share novel findings instilled a sense of reassurance. In an unassuming fashion, the session transformed the mammoth expanse of the APHA convention into an, engaging and more palpable experience, mirroring my personal processing in grappling with the breadth and enormity of international maternal and newborn health.