Epidemiologist Abigail Koch joined Trayt Health in summer 2022, bringing deep expertise in the field of maternal health. Years ago, she wouldn’t have guessed that a technology company would offer her the opportunity to make a significant impact on public health. We dive in to what changed her mind—and what she expects to accomplish in her new role.
Q: Please tell us about your area of expertise.
A: I have been primarily focused on maternal mortality and severe morbidity. That included about 2-and-a-half years at the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, where I was the lead epidemiologist for maternal mortality. But I’ve been analyzing maternal mortality data for quite some time in Illinois, New York, and as part of decentralized efforts through the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) nationally.
Q: How does maternal health relate to mental health, which is Trayt’s focus?
A: One of the issues that emerged through CDC data was that mental health conditions were causing and contributing to pregnancy-associated deaths at a rate that hadn’t been really appreciated previously. After analyzing data from 14 states, the CDC demonstrated that mental health issues are the single biggest contributing factor in maternal mortality.
In terms of mental health-related causes of maternal mortality, traditionally only deaths due to suicide or drug overdose are defined to be caused by mental health conditions. However, that’s not the only way mental health conditions contribute to maternal mortality. Having depression can cause a person to not follow up on medical advice or fail to attend medical appointments. Mental health issues can also lead to medication non-compliance in cases where somebody needs medication for a heart problem or other serious medical condition. And patients may deliberately take themselves off of medications without consulting their doctors because they assume their medications are not safe for pregnancy.
Fortunately, there’s a national network of state-based perinatal psychiatry access programs to connect patients to mental health care during pregnancy. These access networks are a vital link to connect primary care and maternal health providers, particularly rural or general, with a mental health professional who specializes in this area. The care teams can get medication advice and behavioral consultations on cases they may be struggling to diagnose.
Q: What led you to do this work at a tech company?
A: I spent 10 years in academic medical research, and I saw first-hand that the pace of academic research is not meeting the needs of real people. There are academic projects working to develop, say, an app for postpartum depression, but the academic model doesn’t support software development in any reasonable way. Funding is available to support the research and the science, but these grants won’t pay for developing the app to make it work.
That really changed my feeling about joining a for-profit company. A software startup never crossed my mind, but I truly believe Trayt.Health is a mission-driven company and that it has the potential to do what these other models can’t do. I’m absolutely invested in Trayt’s potential to facilitate the expansion of these access networks, as well as to introduce measurement-based care that centers patient outcomes, instead of process and billing systems.
Q: What do you hope to bring to Trayt?
A: I can help with the translation between Trayt’s academic clinical and research partners who are organizing and managing the access programs and the developers who know how to build a functional software product. There’s always language to connect and I can help put the provider point of view into a data framework that software developers can understand. That’s how I see my role as an epidemiologist in general, no matter what setting I’ve been in—bridging the gap between practice and data.