There has been renewed interest in cesareans in the news (and on this blog) since the release of the ACOG/SMFM consensus statement on preventing primary cesareans in March.  When all health care providers are following best practices, rates of procedures should be relatively similar in patients with similar risk profiles.  This is not so for cesareans, where rates of the procedure in low risk births (singleton, cephalic fetus at term; woman with no health complications) can range from less than 5% to nearly 60% depending on the hospital.

Recently the Contra Costa Times ran a story about the issue in which they quoted Dr. Kirsten Salmeen (whose research interests indicate that she is interested in shared decision making models).  Here is the section of the story in which she comments on practice variation:

Why such profound variations? Should our standards of medical practice be so flexible?

The answer is “complicated” replies Dr. Kirsten Salmeen of the Maternal Fetal Medicine Division at UC San Francisco. She thinks variations in cesarean rates across the country are “likely due to a combination of factors.” That includes differences in patient populations and preferences, provider availability and coverage, hospital and provider culture, access to anesthesia and surgical obstetric services, and the prevailing medico-legal climate.

For example, Salmeen proposed that a difference in rate might depend upon the scope of available obstetrical services. In a hospital staffed with 24/7 obstetric coverage and resourced to provide a C-section when needed, a woman might be allowed more time for labor with a vaginal delivery. In contrast, that may not be as feasible with a solo or small-group provider who’d have to cancel scheduled clinic appointments with many patients in order to wait upon one patient’s labor.

While resource allocation can affect cesareans, in many countries, scant resources mean that women cannot get cesareans that they do need, which is one reason infant and maternal mortality rates are so high in developing nations where hospitals are not universally accessible by birthing women.  It seems preposterous that a lack of resources would lead to more cesareans–it’s how those resources are allocated.

The more important question in terms of shared decision making and informed consent is what women are told when a doctor performs a cesarean.  Are they given the real reasons as outlined by Dr. Salmeen:

  • Does an obstetrician in solo practice say, “Your labor is normal and you and the baby are doing fine but it looks like your birth is going to take several more hours, and I have patients waiting at the office, so is it okay if I just do a cesarean?”
  • Or perhaps in a state with high malpractice claims, the obstetrician says, “Your labor is normal and you and the baby are doing fine, but you had a brief indeterminate fetal heart rate tracing, and if your baby isn’t perfect, you could use that to sue me, so is it okay if I just do a cesarean?”
  • Or perhaps the obstetrician says, “Our culture here at this hospital is to do cesareans on women who don’t really need them, so let’s schedule yours now.”

Somehow, I think not.  Here is a video, intended to be humorous, in which the “OB” convinces a woman to have a cesarean, which “will be way easier” for him:


Unfortunately, the kinds of things the actor says are often not that far from things some obstetricians say in real life.

As Dr. Elliott Main (a generally great guy) points out, a doctor can convince pretty much any woman to have a cesarean.  Few women will refuse when a doctor tells them their baby is in danger.

That’s a much easier sell than needing to get back to the office.