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Q&A with Pritha Biswas

We recently welcomed Pritha Biswas to Pathfinder International as Senior Technical Advisor, Maternal and Newborn Health. An obstetrician and gynecologist, Pritha also brings extensive experience in technical leadership of reproductive health programs in Africa and Asia. Based in India, Pritha serves in an advisory role to Pathfinder’s maternal and newborn health portfolio.

What excites you most about your new role at Pathfinder International?

Working for the welfare of women and girls is a passion that made me become an obstetrician, so Pathfinder seems like a perfect fit. Maternal and newborn health holds a special place for me— the happiness of a healthy mother giving birth to a healthy child is second to none.

You’ve worked in India for many years. What have been the biggest areas of progress in improving maternal and newborn health in the country?

Maternal and newborn health has come a long way in India. Financial incentives to women choosing to deliver in hospitals led to a major spike in institutional deliveries, and today almost 90 percent of women deliver at a health facility. Safe deliveries have had a major impact on maternal mortality—which fell from an estimated 556 deaths per 100,000 live births in 1990 to 113 deaths per 100,000 live births between 2016 and 2018.

The Ministry of Health launched a national midwifery program in late 2018 to improve the quality of institutional deliveries and encourage respectful maternity care. The program is positioned to address critical gaps, such as lack of task-sharing in the health workforce and poor health care access in rural areas, by training existing nurse midwife cadres on the full spectrum of midwifery skills and supporting them to serve the public and private sectors.

If you could share one big lesson from your experience practicing as an obstetrician and working in the field of reproductive health over the past couple of decades, what would it be?

From my experience in low- and middle-income countries, it is really important to focus on community and self-care interventions. The COVID-19 pandemic has further highlighted this need. Government health facilities are crowded and busy, suffering from a chronic lack of skilled providers. But most of these countries have large cadres of community health workers. Supporting them to empower the community with community-based and self-care interventions will decongest and free health facilities to provide specialized clinical services. Women feel safe with community health workers and trust them. It’s what they want.

Can you tell us about one moment during your career that was especially memorable or fulfilling?

That would be the time I had to perform a caesarian section in candlelight. I was in North Cachar Hills, a thickly forested tribal hill district in the north-eastern Indian state of Assam. This area is very remote, and it takes a whole day by train to get from the hills down to the plains where most health care is provided.

The mother in labor was a family member of an influential tribal community leader. Since I was posted at the district hospital there, she wanted to deliver her baby closer to home instead of having to travel. The emergency operation had to be done as the baby was in distress. Half-way through the procedure, the lights went out. In those days, there were no mobile phones, so the theatre torch had to do the honors! Luckily, all went well, and she delivered a healthy baby.

Every time I deliver a healthy baby – there is pure joy on the mother’s face. That is what inspires me to keep going.

What is one innovation in maternal and newborn health that should be applied at scale in sexual and reproductive health programs to improve the well-being of new mothers and their babies?

I would like to highlight two innovations: digital health interventions and integrating services. For example, providing family planning services to new mothers when they bring their babies for immunization works well in many settings. Mothers will never miss immunizations for their children because they value their child’s health more than their own health. However, looking after the family and taking care of children keep them from traveling to a health center only for contraception. When they come for the baby’s immunizations, we can counsel and provide them contraceptive services. This approach has been shown to boost contraceptive use and support healthy timing and spacing of pregnancies.

We’ll finish on a personal note. What’s your favorite book and why?

I recently read Ikigai, the Japanese secret to a long and happy life. This book is about the Japanese philosophy of how to find your purpose in life and be calm, focused, detached, yet happy. I find the book’s lessons helpful to being happy in my everyday life.

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