The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

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March 9, 2014

App aids pregnant women

JOHNSTOWN — It is no secret that good prenatal, postnatal and newborn medical care promotes healthy babies.

But studies show pregnant women who are eligible for Medicaid insurance often don’t know how to access the medical care they need during pregnancy.

UnitedHealthcare of Pennsylvania is reaching out to help its members improve their babies’ chances through a program called Baby Blocks.

Baby Blocks is a smartphone and Web-based application that reminds pregnant mothers about their appointments and provides rewards for those who follow the prescribed schedule of care, said Dr. Joseph Sheridan, UnitedHealthcare’s chief medical officer.

“The research that we did in the population we are trying to reach – age 16 to 35 – 70 percent of those folks had smartphones,” Sheridan said. “It is the way they like to be reached.”

The Baby Blocks application resembles a game board with children’s playing blocks on it. Each block represents a recommended medical appointment. There are 23 blocks for all the visits for mother and newborn from conception through the baby’s first 15 months.

“When the next visit is to occur, the block turns a different color and directs the mom to open the block,” Sheridan said. “She sees the time, and also sees information about healthy things she should be doing at that point in her pregnancy.”

She can then schedule text, email or postcards to be sent as reminders. After the visit, she records information from the physician.

Eight of the visits are tied to rewards, such as a diaper bag and baby safety items.

Baby Blocks was tested two years ago in Pennsylvania and Ohio. Its success inspired UnitedHealthcare to expand the program to 13 states, Sheridan said.

In Pennsylvania, only 62 percent of Medicaid-eligible pregnant mothers completed prenatal care in 2011. After Baby Blocks was introduced, the figure went up to 64 percent in 2012 and to 72 percent in 2013.

More than 2,000 women have enrolled across the UnitedHealthcare service area, which stretches across the southern half of the state.

The program is funded entirely by UnitedHealthcare as a way to improve the health of its members, while reducing health costs for the Medicaid program, Sheridan said.

“It goes back to our mission, which is helping people live healthier lives,” Sheridan said. “A poor pregnancy outcome is a devastating thing for the baby and the family, but also for the cost to the health care system.

“The hypothesis is that the upfront money (for rewards) is returned manyfold in the back-end savings.”

Randy Griffith covers health care for The Tribune-Democrat. Follow him on Twitter at


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