A California obstetrician comes to Medford this week to spread the word on "preconception" health care.

A California obstetrician comes to Medford this week to spread the word on "preconception" health care.

Dr. Carolina Reyes knows from experience that women with health problems often have difficult pregnancies. Reyes sees high-risk pregnancies as a professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the University of Southern California medical school. She'll be in town on Friday, May 21, to talk to physicians, nurses and other health care providers about ways they can encourage their patients to get healthy before they become pregnant.

"The health of the mom affects the health of the baby," Reyes said in a telephone interview, "and the health of the mom can affect the lifelong health of the child."

Reyes is one of the featured speakers at the second annual Preconception Health Conference sponsored by the Health Care Coalition of Southern Oregon, a nonprofit organization comprising Jackson, Josephine and Douglas county public health departments and four safety net clinics.

The program will be chaired by Dr. Lee Murdoch, retired Medford pediatrician recently honored by Asante Health System for his lifelong contributions to Southern Oregon's medical community.

Lillian Koppelman, HCCSO's executive director, said local doctors and nurses understand the importance of prenatal care, and they encourage women to avoid alcohol and tobacco during their pregnancy, but many could do more to encourage their patients to maintain good health while they're of childbearing age.

"Fifty percent of pregnancies are unplanned," Koppelman said. "A woman doesn't know she's pregnant for six to eight weeks. The damage (to the fetus) can be done before they even know it."

Prenatal care may begin too late to prevent fetal development problems, she said. "We need to go way upstream."

Reyes said chronic diseases such as diabetes have become a factor in more pregnancies because a growing number of women have children later in life, when they may be struggling with blood-sugar problems.

Reyes said much of the fetal neural system develops during the first eight weeks of pregnancy. Many neural problems and congenital heart defects in the fetus can be connected with the mother's diabetes. That makes it important for women to have their blood sugar under control before they think about pregnancy.

Koppelman said physicians can play a critical role in encouraging women to be in prime physical condition prior to getting pregnant because many people still respect what doctors tell them.

"Women respond best when the doctor gives them the message," she said.

She'd like to see doctors and nurses talk regularly with women about their plans for having children, even during medical visits that have nothing to do with pregnancy or reproductive health.

"We need to do lots more education across the board," Koppelman said. "Repetition is the way people learn."

Reach reporter Bill Kettler at 541-776-4492, or e-mail bkettler@mailtribune.com.