Kentucky doctor honored for her work in bolstering health and preventing deaths of babies born a few weeks early

A Kentucky neonatalogist was honored this week for giving the state “a role in catalyzing a national movement around healthier babies.” Ruth Ann Shepherd, M.D., division director for maternal and child health in the Kentucky Department for Public Health, was presented the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials Presidential Meritorious Service Award and recognized as “an early pioneer in recognizing the critical public health problem of preterm births in Kentucky, and that the troubling trend was common to most states in the country.”

According to New Public Health, an online publication of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation,  Shepherd’s research “revealed that babies born at 37 or 38 weeks had far worse health outcomes than babies born at 39 or 40 weeks. With support from the leadership at the Kentucky Department of Health, and many other organizations who have since taken up the cause of helping to create conditions for healthier babies, many states are beginning to make strides in preventing early births.”

Charles Kendall, chief of staff at the Kentucky Health Department, told the online magazine that the  prematurity rate for infants in Kentucky was exceptionally high, averaging at about 36 weeks at the time of birth.  “There was a corresponding infant death rate that was far exceeding the national average When she looked at the data, it occurred to her that many of those deaths could have been prevented.,” he said. “Much of the prematurity rate had nothing to do with medical issues. The data were telling her that women who smoke are much more likely to deliver early and to have smaller babies. The size of the baby was really the predictor for the infant death rate.”

 But what Shepard also understood, said Kendall, was that a lot of these births were actually planned for convenience. “That was one of the more startling pieces of information from the data. In many cases it was not a medical issue but a lack of education or convenience.

She also brought the science from her work that showed that the fetal brain is still in critical stages of development in those early weeks, and that it’s not at its full capacity until 39 or 40 weeks. That was very compelling. She also said this is not just a Kentucky issue. This is going on everywhere.” (

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