Archives for posts with tag: ACOG

American Heritage Dictionary (my personal favorite) defines treatment in a medical context as

a. The use of an agent, procedure, or regimen, such as a drug, surgery, or exercise, in an attempt to cure or mitigate a disease, condition, or injury.
b. The agent, procedure, or regimen so used.
Notice the terms cure and mitigate.
If we go back to the dictionary, cure is
a. A drug or course of medical treatment used to restore health: discovered a new cure for ulcers.
b. Restoration of health; recovery from disease: the likelihood of cure.
c. Something that corrects or relieves a harmful or disturbing situation:
and mitigate is
a. To make less severe or intense; moderate or alleviate.
Thus, we should expect that any medical treatment should make us better than we would be without it.  Yet reporting on a systematic review in JAMA,  the New York TImes recently ran a piece called “If Patients Only Knew How Often Treatments Could Harm Them.”
Perhaps in these cases, we might want to reconsider using the term “treatment.”
The JAMA review, “Patients’ Expectations of the Benefits and Harms of Treatments, Screening, and Tests,” concludes
The majority of participants overestimated intervention benefit and underestimated harm. Clinicians should discuss accurate and balanced information about intervention benefits and harms with patients, providing the opportunity to develop realistic expectations and make informed decisions.
But where are patients getting this information?  While some may see advertisements for a handful of drugs, for the most part, patients get information on “treatment” from their doctors.  A commentary on the review suggests limiting advertising and changing product labeling to be more transparent (big thumbs up from me on the second one in particular).  It also says that
[A] physician must first understand the risk herself (or himself) and must then communicate it effectively.  It is not clear that physicians do either of these things well.
Addressing OB care, the JAMA article notes that only 9% of women accurately identified the benefits of a trial of labor after cesarean (TOLAC) over an elective repeat cesarean (ERCS), and only 37% accurately identified risks of a TOLAC. Patients also incorrectly identified the benefits of a fetal abnormality scan (90% overestimated the benefits), and 57% could not accurately identify the risks of amniocentesis.
One of the original articles from the review, Trial of Labor After Repeat Cesarean: Are Patients Making an Informed Decision, states
Women in both groups [TOLAC or ERCS] were insufficiently informed about the risks and benefits of TOLAC and ERCS, particularly women in the ERCS group. Specifically, our patients were not familiar with
  • the chances of a successful TOLAC,
  • the effect of indication for previous cesarean section on success,
  • the risk of uterine rupture,
  • the increased length of recovery with ERCS versus TOLAC
  • the increased risk of maternal death, neonatal respiratory compromise, and neonatal intensive care unit admission with ERCS.

In addition, if our patient felt her provider had a preference, she was more likely to choose that mode of delivery, whereas when patients felt their providers were indifferent or if they were unaware of their providers’ preferences, 50% chose one mode and 50% chose the other.

 Note there is no indication that the women who did not feel the provider had a preference were making their own decisions based on accurate information.
Anecdotal evidence indicates that providers rarely provide accurate information–and sometime provide no information, simply saying, “Let’s schedule your cesarean.”  Some examples:
  • Jessica: I was told I need not waste my time trying to attempt a vaginal birth because it would be another long birth that would ultimately end in another section.
  • Jenerra: “I was always told by my doctors that because I had my first c-section that I would have to keep having them, even though my first c-section was the result of an induction gone wrong.”
  • Kiara: I do believe that [my primary cesarean] was the best outcome for everyone, but I knew that I didn’t want that
    experience again. When I discussed this with my OB, she said ‘Oh, we don’t do VBACs in this practice. When you get pregnant again, we’ll just schedule you like a hair appointment. Easy!’
  • Jamie: [My OB said], “You don’t want to VBAC. You don’t need to tear up your little bottom.”
The JAMA article, which is not focused on obstetric care in particular, does not address other common obstetric “treatments.” For instance, many physicians conduct ultrasounds routinely during pregnancy.  A friend of mine said her doctor never measured her fundal height, instead conducting an ultrasound at every appointment, even though there is no indication that having ANY ultrasounds improves pregnancy outcomes.   Other “treatments” for which women may not be adequately informed of benefits and risks include elective inductions,  Pitocin augmentation, and episiotomies, along with any number of other “treatments” offered in prenatal care, labor, and childbirth.
Women often believe they have no say in these procedures at all, as they are often presented as something that is going to occur rather than a choice that the woman can make.  Unfortunately, though ACOG offers excellent guidelines on informed consent, in practice informed consent is rarely more than a women signing a form that she has no time to read, and informed refusal is never on the table at all.  In fact some recent cases have indicated that in some cases doctors override a woman’s informed refusal, as in the case of Rinat Dray’s forced cesarean and Kelly X’s forced episiotomy.
The New York Times report on the JAMA review states:
This study, and others, indicate that patients would opt for less care if they had more information about what they may gain or risk with treatment. Shared decision-making in which there is an open patient-physician dialogue about benefits and harms, often augmented with use of treatment decision aids, like videos, would help patients get that information.
Unfortunately, shared decision making operates as a buzz phrase rather than a practice most of the time.  Perhaps this uninformed approach to “treatment” is why Marinah Valenzuela Farrell, a certified professional midwife, and president of the Midwives Alliance of North America notes in the New York Times series “Is Home Birth Ever a Safe Choice?” that hospitals carry their own risks.
They just don’t inform you about them.

I once led a community service project for which middle schoolers baked cookies to deliver to a local shelter.  We brought out the ingredients and began giving instructions when one kid asked if they could eat some of the cookie dough.  Another kid immediately said eating cookie dough would give everyone salmonella.  Within seconds, we had two camps of shrieking middle schoolers, one with members who had eaten raw cookie dough all their lives and were just fine, and the other with members that insisted that eating raw cookie dough would lead straight to a week-long date with the toilet followed by certain death.

A Google search on the subject breaks into similar camps, from “Rejoice!  you Probably Won’t Get Salmonella from Eating Raw Cookie Dough” to “Eating Raw Cookie Dough Can Actually Be Deadly.”

Real-Cookie1

In fact, there is a tiny risk of contracting salmonella from eating anything with raw eggs in it, including cookie dough, but that risk is very small, and the risk of dying from salmonella is even smaller.  There is also a risk of choking on raw cookie dough, or having an unexpected allergic reaction to an ingredient, or eating too much of it and having a stomach rupture.  And there is a risk of getting salmonella from other foods, such as meat or salad greens–in fact, almost any food could be contaminated.

All of this is to say that everyone assesses risks differently, and that people can get very upset when others don’t assess risks the same way they do.

Enter home birth.

In the New York Times’ “Is Home Birth Ever a Safe Choice?” risk assessment is on everyone’s mind.  Two obstetricians who specifically address risk come to two very different conclusions.

In “Emergency Care Can Be Too Urgently Needed for Home Births,” John Jennings, the current president of the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) writes,

When women decide where to give birth, they should understand the potential risks involved with their options….evidence shows that although the overall risk of serious childbirth complications remains low, there is still a twofold to threefold increased risk of neonatal death associated with home birth.

This line is almost verbatim from ACOG’s 2011 Committee Opinion, “Planned Home Birth,” which says that “it respects the right of a woman to make a medically informed decision about delivery,” but goes on to say that the only risk obstetricians are obligated to share is the neonatal death death risk as determined by the Wax study.  The Wax study, a meta-analysis of a number of other studies, was widely criticized for drawing faulty conclusions from flawed methods (see e.g. herehere, and here).

Like OBs Grunebaum and Chervenak, who I critiqued in my previous post, Jennings, a professor at Texas Tech, suggests that hospitals strive for more home-like settings and partner more with nurse midwives (CNMs).  He also suggests working with patients to create “action plans”–aka birth plans.

Texas Tech OBs attend births at the Medical Center Health System’s Center for Women and Infants.  The hospital reports to the Leapfrog Group, which says that they have made progress on reducing episiotomies (current rate is 12.2%,), but have low adherence to clinical guidelines for high risk deliveries, which would seem to negate the purpose of having a high-risk birth at the hospital.  In their favor, they do appear to have one of the lower primary cesarean rates in the state for uncomplicated births at just over 12% (an uncomplicated or low-risk birth is generally defined as a healthy mother with a single, head-down, vertex fetus).

It’s hard to determine much from the website other than that they have a lot of nice rooms and that they appear not to do skin-to-skin contact at birth (the nurse takes the baby for suctioning).  They have a short video that shows a woman on a gurney with a nurse showing her what look like two English muffins on a headphone cord.  There is a long sequence on the Ronald McDonald Room where a towheaded boy eats cookies, and then a segment on “Family Centered Care,” which shows a nurse holding a baby in the hospital nursery.  Despite Jennings’ apparent promotion of CNMs, no midwives are listed as practicing there, and a search for midwives on the site yields nothing.  There is no information about developing or following an “action plan.”

OBs who say that hospitals should provide home-like setting, employ nurse midwives, and honor birth plans might want to begin at the hospitals where they themselves practice.

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Jennings also says, “As obstetrician-gynecologists, our goal with any delivery is a healthy mother and a healthy baby.” It’s not as if mothers’ and midwives’ goal is mothers and babies who are sick or dead. Jennings definition of “healthy” seems to be “alive.”  Superfluous slicing, dicing, and infections are not even noted.

The problem with assessing risk only in terms of neonatal death is that the risk of neonatal death is very small, while the risk of other birth complications is fairly large.  Jennings’ hospital aside, the national cesarean rate for low risk births is 26.9% (the overall rate is 32.7%).  This varies tremendously by hospital, with some achieving rates below 5% while others have rates that are over 80%.

Aaron Caughey, who is chair of the department of obstetrics and gynecology and the associate dean for Women’s Health Research and Policy at Oregon Health and Science University’s School of Medicine, does not assume that the risks in home birth are automatically unacceptable.  Instead he asks, “In Home Birth, What Risk is Acceptable?

In discussing a recent British report about home birth, Caughey acknowledges  “increased C-sections, episiotomies and epidurals as a reason to avoid in-hospital births”  and “[t]he tradeoff of an increased risk of C-section for a small decreased risk in neonatal morbidity and mortality is not worth it for some women.”  He goes on to emphasize neonatal death risks, but says that women should be educated and assess trade-offs for themselves.

Oregon Health and Science University actually does offer some of the options that other OBs said hospitals should provide.  They have midwives on staff attending births, tout their low C-section rates (which actually aren’t that low, but are below 30%), and offer waterbirth and vaginal breech births.  Even though Caughey chairs the department at a hospital with many “home-like” options, he is the most open to the idea that some women might still choose to birth at home.

Obstetricians are the people most likely to see the rare birth disaster, and understandably, such emergencies make an impression.  Because even a low-risk birth can go wrong, many OBs see low-risk home births as risky, and Caughey pretty obviously believes hospital births are the better choice–which is absolutely his prerogative.  At least he doesn’t imply that women who make different choices than he would simply don’t know what they are doing.

Home and hospital births, however, are often compared to each other with little consideration of circumstances.  For instance, home-to-hospital transfer rates for women who have had a previous birth are far lower than they are for women having a first birth–in the largest home birth study done in the United States, transfers were three times more common among first time mothers–22.9%–vs. 7.5 % for women who had birthed before.  As mentioned above, the risk of an unnecessary C-section is very high at some hospitals and almost unheard of at others.  Some hospitals are not even equipped to do on-the-spot emergency cesareans, resulting in bans on vaginal birth after cesarean.  Thus, a woman might want to consider more than just home vs. hospital, but individual circumstances–does her pregnancy have elevated risk?  Does the hospital available to her offer evidence-based care?  What are the skill levels of the various practitioners available at the hospital or at home?

Even the Wax report acknowledges

Planned home births were associated with fewer maternal interventions including epidural analgesia, electronic fetal heart rate monitoring, episiotomy, and operative delivery. These women were less likely to experience lacerations, hemorrhage, and infections. Neonatal outcomes of planned home births revealed less frequent prematurity, low birthweight, and assisted newborn ventilation.

It is presumptuous for obstetricians to offer only neonatal death rates when giving women information about risks of home vs. hospital births. While the risk of neonatal death is a very serious one, it hardly ever happens.  Wax estimates the risk to be about 2/1,000 for home births vs. a little less than 1/1,000 for hospital birth.  On the other hand, a hospital with an 80% cesarean rate for low-risk births would give a woman an 800/1,000 chance of having a cesarean vs around 50/1,000 if she births at home.

Women take the lives of their babies very, very seriously.  It is almost certain that every mother loves her baby more than any obstetrician does.  With accurate facts about all aspects of birth, women are capable of doing their own risk assessments, and they have the right to choose even high risk home births, despite the opinion of you, an obstetrician, or anyone else who doesn’t agree with her choice.

For the record, I have eaten raw cookie dough all my life and am just fine, but you don’t have to have any.  As for the service project, we had bought pasteurized eggs, and all of the kids enjoyed cookie dough to their heart’s content.

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It is often noted that change takes time, specifically that it takes about 17 years for research findings to be consistently adopted as practice.  We see that issue frequently in obstetrics, where it often takes longer.  For instance, even though high quality research has shown for more than 20 years that routine episiotomies cause the very tears they were initially hypothesized to prevent, in many hospitals, episiotomy rates remain above 30%, with rates at some institutions being much higher (read more on episiotomy here).

In considering VBAC, however, we can see that change can occur almost instantaneously–in one direction.  The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) began recommending restricted use of episiotomy in 2006–more than a decade after research showed the risks of routine use–and many practitioners still aren’t on board.  But when ACOG changed its recommendations regarding vaginal birth after cesarean (VBAC), the practice came to a screeching halt.

ACOG has offered a series of recomendations on VBACs, beginning with Committee Opinions in 1988 and 1994, with Practice Bulletins following in 1995 (#1), 1998 (#2), 1999 (#5), 2004 (#54), and 2010 (#115).  Dr. Hilary Gerber put together an excellent slide show explaining the changes in each set of recommendations, which you can view here.

For most of the twentieth century, when lifesaving cesareans became a real option in hospital births, the common wisdom was “once a cesarean, always a cesarean,” a statement made professionally in 1916 at the New York Association of Obstetricians & Gynecologists.  However, for the next 60 years, cesareans were so rare to begin with that the number of women undergoing repeat procedures was small.  The overall cesarean rate in 1965 was under 5%.  As primary cesareans became more common in the late 1970s and through the 80s, more and more women also underwent repeat cesareans, and by 1990 the overall c-section rate was almost 23%.  At the same time, surgical techniques advanced to make VBACs safer, and in 1990 about 20% of women who had a prior cesarean had a VBAC.

In 1994, ACOG issued a Committee Opinion that said that in the absence of contraindications (primarily classical incision in prior cesarean), women should be encouraged to undergo trial of labor after cesarean (TOLAC) rather than automatically being scheduled for a repeat cesarean.  We know now that most women, especially those with only one prior cesarean, are good candidates for VBAC, and it is estimated that 70% of women undergoing TOLAC can have successful VBACs, but the next year, the VBAC rate was only 27%.  While this was definitely an increase, it hardly indicated that all of the most appropriate candidates for TOLAC were actually going into labor.  The VBAC rate peaked in 1996 at 28.3% and then began to decrease, driven by an article by Michael McMahon et al that linked TOLAC to an increase in maternal complications.

In 1999, ACOG released new, more restrictive recommendations, in part as a response to the McMahon article.  Chief among the changes was what became known as the “immediately available standard”:

VBAC should be attempted in institutions equipped to respond to emergencies with physicians immediately available to provide emergency care.

This recommendation was Level C evidence, meaning it was based on clinical opinion, not research trials.  Level A evidence, the level with the highest quality research to back it, still stated in the same bulletin that most women with prior cesareans were good candidates for TOLAC.

The problem with the immediately available standard is that most smaller hospitals can’t meet it.  They may not have an anesthesiologist in house 24/7 or enough OBs that there is necessarily one standing by on the ward, ready to perform surgery.  Even large hospitals may not meet this standard if they cannot guarantee that the available doctors will not be busy with other patients.  The standard was not specifically defined, and rather than be concerned that they weren’t meeting it, many hospitals simply stopped offering TOLACs, requiring patients who had previous cesareans to schedule a repeat surgery.

Here’s what happened:

cesarean VBAC graph

The line that ends at the top is the overall cesarean rate.  The line that ends in the middle is the primary cesarean rate, and the line that ends at the bottom is the VBAC rate.  In the mid 1990s, the VBAC rate was higher than the overall cesarean rate, but within a year of the 1999 guidelines, VBAC rates were down to what they had been in 1993, the year before less restrictive guidelines were initially recommended.  But it didn’t stop there.  The rate just kept decreasing.

in 2010, ACOG again issued less restrictive guidelines for VBAC.  Dr. Richard Waldman, ACOG’s president at the time, said,

Given the onerous medical liability climate for ob-gyns, interpretation of ACOG’s earlier guidelines led many hospitals to discontinue VBACs altogether. Our primary goal is to promote the safest environment for labor and delivery, not to restrict women’s access to VBAC.

The new guidelines stated not only that most women with a prior cesarean were good candidates for VBAC, but that many women with two prior cesareans were as well.

Here’s what happened:

primarycesvbactbl

The rates rose a tiny amount, and remain about half of what they were in 1990.

In 2014, AGOC issued a consensus statement about preventing primary cesareans.  This publication pointed out some of the risks of cesarean over vaginal birth, including a tripling of risk of maternal death.  While some hospitals and doctors have gradually become more receptive to VBAC and have lifted out-and-out bans, some hospitals have instituted new bans since the 2010 and 2014 guidelines were released.

Many providers do not support VBAC and do not present benefits and risks in a way that allows women to make informed decisions.  The website My OB Said What? is full of quotes from doctors misrepresenting VBAC risks:

Attempting a VBAC is comparable in risk to standing your older child out in the middle of a busy highway and hoping she doesn’t get hit by a semi. Maybe the odds of her being hit are low, but you wouldn’t take that risk with your other child, so I don’t understand why you’re willing to risk your unborn baby’s life.

I don’t know where you got the *delusion* that you could VBAC, there was a law that was passed against VBAC’ing after more than one cesarean.

A VBAC is like *jumping off a bridge* in which mortality is close to 90% with a uterine rupture!

When citing risk of “uterine rupture,” many physicians include scar separation in the totals.  Just to clarify, there is a difference between genuine uterine rupture, which is a genuine emergency, and a cesarean scar opening, which is not:

In contrast to frank uterine rupture, uterine scar dehiscence involves the disruption and separation of a preexisting uterine scar. Uterine scar dehiscence is a more common event than uterine rupture and seldom results in major maternal or fetal complications.

So let’s review:

  • When VBACs were recommended as safe in 1994, the rate slowly crept up, reaching over 28% in 1996.
  • The rate began to go down in 1997 in response to a single article, even before recommendations were issued by ACOG.
  • When the “immediately available” standard was introduced in 1999, the rate plunged to its pre-1994 level within a year.
  • 10 years after the “immediately available” standard (level C) was introduced, the rate was 8.4%, even though the Level A recommendations still said that most women were good candidates for TOLAC.
  • Two years after less restrictive standards were introduced in 2010, the VBAC rate had inched up less than 2 percentage points, to 10.2%.  Many hospitals have continued their de facto VBAC bans, some hospitals have introduced new bans, and many physicians still refuse to perform VBACs.

The problem is (as others have also pointed out), why are hospitals not ready to perform an emergency cesarean?  Isn’t that the whole reason to birth in a hospital–that they are prepared for emergencies?  Uterine rupture is not unique to VBAC–it can happen as a result of  any number of complications, including labor inductions.  A hospital that is not equipped to support a TOLAC is not set up to support birth emergencies.

VBACfacts.com has a list of VBAC myths and corresponding correct information.  here is my favorite:

Myth:  If your hospital doesn’t offer VBAC, you have to have a repeat cesarean.

As Howard Minkoff MD said at the 2010 NIH VBAC Conference, “Autonomy is an unrestricted negative right which means a woman, a person, anybody, has a right to refuse any surgery at any time.” ACOG affirms that “restrictive VBAC policies should not be used to force women to undergo a repeat cesarean delivery against their will.”

If your hospital does not support VBAC, ask them why they are not properly equipped and staffed to perform emergency cesareans.  Then go elsewhere.

 

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.

 

Rinat Dray was forced to have a cesarean in 2011 at Staten Island University Hospital.  Dray had two previous cesareans and chose a doctor who said he supported her desire for a VBAC and a hospital with (by American standards) a low cesarean rate and a good VBAC rate.  But once she arrived at the hospital in labor, according to Dray (as reported by the New York Times),

The doctor told her the baby would be in peril and her uterus would rupture if she did not [have a cesarean]; he told her that she would be committing the equivalent of child abuse and that her baby would be taken away from her.

She still refused the cesarean, and she was supported in her refusal by her husband and her mother.  The hospital strapped her down and wheeled her into surgery as she begged them to stop.  A note in her medical record by Dr. James Ducey says, “I have decided to override her refusal to have a C-section.”  During the surgery, the doctor punctured her bladder.  You can hear a podcast on RH Reality Check in which Dray discusses her case along with professionals in obstetrics, law, and ethics.

Dray is a Hasidic Jew, which likely means that she wants a large family.  While there are risks to vaginal birth after cesarean, in most cases there are even greater risks to having many cesareans.

In the podcast, Dr. Katharine Morrison, MD, FACOG (Director of Buffalo WomenServices, which I wrote about here) says that she reviewed the record and it did not appear that there was an emergency situation or that a cesarean was needed at all.  But even if a cesarean has appeared necessary to preserve the life or health of Dray or her baby, as Dr. Howard Minkoff, chairman of obstetrics at Maimonides Medical Center in Brooklyn, said in the NYT article, “I don’t have a right to put a knife in your belly ever.”

One would think that a case in which a psychologically stable woman refused surgery and was then strapped down, sliced open, and had her bladder perforated would be apparent to anyone as a horrendous breach of human rights.  (And actually, she was asking them to wait a little longer, not saying she would not agree if she felt a cesarean was truly necessary).

All one has to do to see where a woman falls in the human rights spectrum of many is to read the comments on the New York Times piece.

The comments fall into a number of categories, including some that unequivocally support Dray.

Many, however, unequivocally support the the doctors or the profession of obstetrics.  Here is Northstar5:

If this woman had 2 prior C-sections then the doctors are absolutely right that vaginal delivery was exceedingly risky. I almost laughed when I read that the woman is charging the doctors and hospital for “improperly substituting their judgment for that of the mother.” What?? That’s what they are supposed to do. They are doctors, she is not.

Some defend the doctors doing whatever they like to avoid risks of malpractice:

Attempting a vaginal birth after two c-sections is extremely dangerous and reckless. The physicians involved would likely have been sued regardless of the method of delivery, so I applaud them for at least saving a life in this case.

I’m not sure where the commenters get their medical information, but the doctor agreed in advance to attend Dray at a vaginal birth.  You can read the entire American College of Obstetricans and Gynecologists’ practice statement “Vaginal Birth After Previous Cesarean Delivery,” which specifically says, “women with two previous low transverse cesarean deliveries may be candidates for TOLAC [trial of labor after cesarean].”  I highly recommend that you visit Jennifer Kamel’s website VBACFacts.com and read “13 Myths about VBAC.”  Repeat cesarean and VBAC both have risks.  The newest ACOG obstetric care consensus statement on cesarean points out the risks of cesarean over vaginal birth.  Cesarean nearly quadruples the risk of maternal death, and risks of maternal morbidity and mortality go up with every cesarean.  This would be a particular concern for a woman who wanted a very large family, as many Hasidic women do.  Here is a consent form that clearly lays out the risks and benefits of repeat cesarean and VBAC.

Some commenters are completely on the side of the fetus–if the mother’s status is reduced to that of a container, so be it.  Here’s NYC Commuter:

In this case, the hospital and doctors have not one patient, but two. One is an adult who appears competent to make medical decisions. The other is a fetus, at term, who has no voice. The courts have repeatedly affirmed that the state has a duty to protect citizens that cannot protect themselves. If a fetus is believed to be “alive,” then an argument can be made that it must be protected as well. Pregnant women have been forced to receive imprisoned to prevent them from harming their fetuses (e.g. drug abusers), take medication (e.g. for treatable diseases), and even receive c-sections if the baby’s life is judged to be in direct jeopardy.

I have written about the ethics of privileging the well-being of a fetus over an adult woman many times, including here, here, and here.  ACOG also agrees that a woman should have the right to make her own decisions, even if it may negatively impact the fetus.  One recommendation from ACOG’s Committee Opinion, “Maternal Decision Making, Ethics, and the Law” says,

Pregnant women’s autonomous decisions should be respected. Concerns about the impact of maternal decisions on fetal well-being should be discussed in the context of medical evidence and understood within the context of each woman’s broad social network, cultural beliefs, and values. In the absence of extraordinary circumstances, circumstances that, in fact, the Committee on Ethics cannot currently imagine, judicial authority should not be used to implement treatment regimens aimed at protecting the fetus, for such actions violate the pregnant woman’s autonomy.

In addition to wanting to protect the rights of physicians and fetuses over those of pregnant women, many commenters simply condemn Dray as selfish, selfish, selfish.  Here’s Beth Green:

What an incredibly selfish woman putting her unborn child in harms way. She got her several hours of trial-labor and no baby, so according to the standard of care she got a C-section and a healthy baby.

Some also posit that Dray is not only selfish but also psychologically compromised.  Here’s Dave:

This case is not about the “debate over C-sections.” This case is mostly about psychopathology, but there is a larger point. Rinat Dray’s actions harm us all. In her narcissism, she was willing to sacrifice her child to maintain her sense of control. This bears repeating – we are dealing with someone who would rather her child suffer than allow a section. So I’m sure she cannot put herself in the place of others, and she will not understand this, but she makes it all the more difficult to deliver babies in the US. Once all the OB/GYNs suffer these indignities and these lawsuits from those with personality disorders, who will deliver babies safely?

And here’s Reader:

A mother in labor who focuses more on her joy of delivery rather than trying to ensure that she delivers a healthy child who could be stuck with birth defects for up to an average of 7-8 decades thereafter is not rational, is selfish and needs to have her head examined.

What we get above all else if the “all that matters is a healthy baby” trope.  Here is NMY:

I have absolutely no sympathy for this woman at all. Her sense of entitlement is simply galling. She’s having a baby. The most important thing here is to ensure the delivery of a healthy baby, not to satisfy some preconceived notion that she should have a vaginal delivery.

Here’s Jen:

The OBGYNs can’t win. Now they are going to get sued for performing c-sections. It used to be they got sued for not doing the section soon enough. This lawsuit is absolutely ridiculous and I hope the physicians win. Do you want a c-section and a healthy baby or a VBAC and a dead baby? How can any mother refuse a c-section when the physician is telling you the health of your baby is at risk?

Here’s Stephen:

Sorry, but the health of the fetus should trump the intellectual desires of the mother….There are too many C-sections performed to be sure, but isn’t the point of labor and birth to deliver a healthy baby?

Here’s Lynn in DC:

She had this child in 2011 and all of her children are healthy so what’s the big harm here?

Aside from the fallacy of believing that Ms. Dray could not have both a respectful vaginal birth AND a healthy baby, a healthy baby is not all that matters.  A healthy mother matters too.  As in Ms. Dray’s case, having a perforated bladder and the trauma of being strapped down for a surgery that she actively refused did not result in a healthy mother.  Not being dead is not good enough.

 

 

 

The New York Times recently ran an excellent piece on increasing evidence-based medicine in childbirth, Tina Rosenberg’s “In Delivery Rooms, Reducing Births of Convenience.”  One would think that evidence-based practice was not a controversial idea.  But apparently it is–especially in childbirth.

The piece discusses the reasons for hospitals’ varied cesarean rates among low-risk births (healthy women with no prior cesarean and a full term, singleton, vertex fetus).

STV fetus For instance, Los Angeles Community Hospital has a 62.7% rate; up the coast at San Francisco General, the rate is 10.1%.  Remember, these are all low-risk births.

The piece concludes that there are many reasons for the variation, including some not very nice ones, like the convenience of doctors or the fact that most of the fee doctors collect for prenatal care and birth comes from attending the birth (making it worth their while to schedule births for when their partners won’t get the prize). It also discusses various staffing models that may contribute to the rise or fall of cesarean rates.

Then come the comments.

Apparently, some believe that merely presenting evidence about safe and healthy childbirth practices deprives women of choices.  Here’s “Janet”:

My body – my choice. Period.
If in the current medical environment I can elect cosmetic surgery, then I can elect a C-section. No further discussion necessary.
Stop subjugating women by dictating how to deliver.

There are authoritative statements based on supposition or speculation.  “PPippins” had a lot to say in the comments, including this:

Natural birth is not complication free: it harms mothers and babies. Where is the outrage about the babies who die or are damaged during natural births? What of the mothers who suffer unspeakable trauma and damages, require subsequent surgeries, become incontinent? No one ever has anything to say about them.

Of course, all of these things can happen during cesareans, medicated childbirth, operative vaginal deliveries–any birth has risks.  Evidence, however, shows that vaginal birth is safest for women (cesarean more than triples the risk of maternal death), and that two years after birth, there is no statistical difference in incontinence between women who birthed vaginally vs. by cesarean.

There are attacks on people who support natural childbirth.  “Kirsten” is sure there is a conspiracy:

Whoever selected the comments with the green checkmarks was clearly a natural childbirth advocate like the author of the article. It is sort of a religion that they try to indoctrinate you into in many birth education classes. I’m appalled that the NYT is promoting such a poorly supported opinion. A low cesaren rate has nothing to do with the maternal and fetal mortality rates and that is why it is wrong to do what the author did and rate hospitals according to their cesarean rates. Also, the author claimed that the acog supports a 15 percent cesarean rate while linking to a natural childbirth propaganda site. Bait and switch. There is no such acog recommendation.

Actually, ACOG did set a target of a 15% cesarean rate among low risk mothers as part of the Healthy People 2010 goals (the goal was not met).  Cesarean is most certainly tied to maternal mortality and morbidity (and has some elevated risks for infants as well).  While there are definitely those who advocate for natural/physiologic birth, I have never heard any natural childbirth advocate say that women should be forced to have an unmedicated vaginal birth.

Then, there are the anecdotes.  My heart goes out to any woman who loses a child–having a stillborn or infant death is a terrible and traumatic thing.  Certainly there are isolated cases in the U.S. in which a cesarean should have been performed and was not.  This does not mean that all women should have cesareans, just as the fact that some women die as a result of cesarean does not mean that no woman should ever have one.  It’s hard to present facts this way to a woman suffering from such a terrible loss, so we’ll just say it here, and if you want to read the anecdotes, go read the comments on the article.  I’m not going to exploit anyone’s pain.

Finally, there are the arguments that the process of birth doesn’t matter–only the outcome.  And the outcomes we care about set the bar at being alive, and possibly healthy:

The only thing that would tell us about safety is mortality rates (both perinatal and maternal, adjusted for the risk profile of the patient population).
Ms. Rosenberg has sadly fallen into the mind set of the natural childbirth community, which values process (vaginal birth) over outcome (live mother and live baby).
Would you judge a cancer center by how much chemotherapy is “necessary” or “unnecessary” or would you judge it by how many cancer patients survived? Would you judge the treatment of heart disease by how many people got angioplasty vs. how many had surgery, or would you judge it by how many people survived and thrived after hospitalization.
The goal in obstetrics is NOT to maximize vaginal deliveries. The goal is to maximize babies’ lives and brain function and mothers lives.

Of course, as noted in the links above, overuse of cesarean surgery does not contribute to the goal of life, especially for mothers.  Let me respond twofold:

  1. If a hospital has equal or better survival rates by doing fewer heart surgeries or less chemotherapy, I think that’s a great way to assess the quality of care.
  2. By the logic of this comment, as long as you are alive (and maybe physically healthy and not brain damaged), nothing that happens to you can possibly matter.  Were you sexually harassed?  Did you lose your job?  Did your house burn down?  Well, you are alive and healthy, and that’s the only way we can assess your life.  By this logic, no one should ever have a wedding ceremony and reception because you are just as married if you make a quick (and very low cost) trip to the courthouse.  Why does it matter how you got to your married state if you are ultimately married?  Plus, you would be alive whether you had a nice wedding or not, so who cares?

If the commenter doesn’t care about her life experiences, that’s fine.  She can have superfluous cesareans and no wedding and be thrilled with her live state after she loses her job and her house burns down.

But for some of us, the quality of our life experiences does matter.

Plus, at San Francisco General, with its high risk, low income population and 10% term, singleton, vertex cesarean rate, there have been no maternal deaths in the last 5 years, and perinatal mortality is less than half of the national average.

Which just goes to show, having good experiences and being alive are not mutually exclusive.

 

There are two legal ways to have an abortion in the United States, through surgery or medication.  Medication abortions are those induced through taking mifepristone pills (which were called RU486 when they were developed).  Mifepristone is not Plan B (levonorgestrel, a synthetic form of progesterone) or Ella (ulipristal acetate, which suppresses progesterone production). Plan B and Ella have nothing to do with abortion; both stop ovulation in order to prevent pregnancy.  Mifepristone causes the expulsion of an embryo in an established pregnancy, much like a spontaneous miscarriage.

There are three main restrictions put on medical abortions in the United States:

  1. Pills must be provided by a licensed physician (not a nurse practitioner, nurse midwife, or other qualified health practitioner)
  2. Pills must be provided through an in-person patient-physician visit
  3. Pills must be provided according to the original FDA protocol (much lower doses of the pills have since been found to be effective)

Image

White states have the least restrictive policies, and dark green states have the most restrictive.  You can find an interactive version of this map at the Mother Jones website (the map does have some inaccuracies; Iowa and Arizona in particular currently have stays against some of their restrictions).

Restriction #1: Licensed Physicians 

That the pills can only be provided by a licensed physician is a restriction that is not solely promoted by opponents of abortion. It is a restriction in place in states that receive an “A” from NARAL Pro-Choice America on choice related law (find your state’s laws and grade here).

Physicians often oppose legislation that would allow medical practitioners who are not physicians–including midwives, advanced practice nurses, or pharmacists–to provide care that is within their scope of training.  Doctors often make the same argument that abortion opponents make: that they are trying to keep women “safe”  (e.g. doctors protect women from midwifery care in New York; doctors protect people from receiving primary care from nurse practitioners in Texas; doctors protect people from vaccination by pharmacists in Florida).

In her novel The Handmaid’s Tale, a story of a futuristic society in which the United States is taken over by the Christian Right, the characters identify differences between “freedom to” and “freedom from.” If you haven’t read the book, go get it and read it immediately.  In any case, Aunt Lydia, who trains women to accept their role in the new society, says,

There is more than one kind of freedom…Freedom to and freedom from. In the days of anarchy, it was freedom to. Now you are being given freedom from. Don’t underrate it.

“Freedom to” gives women agency and choice.  “Freedom from” restricts them in exchange for safety and protection.  In the novel, “freedom from” involves wearing burkah-like clothing, not being allowed to read, and bearing children for religious couples with political standing.  This supposedly frees women from rape, responsibility, and thinking.

In any case, the paternalistic “protection” of making physicians the only practitioners who can provide medication abortions seems to have an underlying agenda–moral or financial–that has nothing to do with women’s health.

Restriction #2: In-Person Physician Encounter

Telemedicine is increasingly used to serve rural communities in particular.  Many people in rural areas are far from hospitals and other sources of medical care.  You can see in this map that there are large areas without critical access.

hospital access

To provide needed care in the Mountain West, St. Luke’s Health System has established a virtual intensive care unit, which monitors 69 critical care beds in 5 hospitals and provides critical care consultation in 5 emergency departments in Idaho.  Here is a video about it:

Critical care is being offered to people on the brink of death through telemedicine, but some states have seen fit to decide that medication abortions offered through telemedicine are dangerous.  Over the past year, this restriction has generated attention in Iowa, where Planned Parenthood has safely offered medication abortions through telemedicine to thousands of women since 2008.  In September 2013, the Iowa Board of Medicine, made up of political appointees, voted to ban telemedical abortions, in addition to imposing other restrictions and requirements.

Delaying access to abortion care narrows women’s options, as medication abortions are only considered safe through the first 9 weeks of pregnancy.  After 9 weeks, a surgical abortion becomes a woman’s only abortion option (see here for a comparison of surgical and medication abortions).  While there are risks and side effects from medication abortions, most of them are uncomfortable or annoying rather than dangerous.  According to the FDA, no deaths have been directly attributed to medication abortions.

As Jill June, President and CEO of Planned Parenthood of the Heartland, said,

It’s evident that this ruling was not based on the health and safety of women in our state – it was based on politics. There was no medical evidence or information presented to the Board that questions the safety of our telemedicine delivery system. It’s apparent that the goal of this rule is to eliminate abortion in Iowa, and it has nothing to do with the safety of telemedicine. The reality is, this rule will only make it more challenging for a woman to receive the safe health care she needs.  Iowa women deserve to have access to the newest medical technologies and all of the heath care services they need, regardless of where they live.

A judge halted Iowa’s ban through a stay until the court case is settled.  The Iowa legislature, which is controlled by Democrats, was unable to pass a bill to instate the restriction through law; however, this restriction is in place in other states.

Restriction #3: The Original FDA Protocol

The Guttmacher Institute offers this chart comparing the original protocols for administering mifepristone pills established by the FDA, and the newer protocols adopted by the World Health Organization (WHO) and the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) based on evidence that has emerged since the FDA’s original approval:

Screen Shot 2014-04-02 at 10.00.16 PM

Abortion opponents have argued that adhering to the FDA protocols protects women, even though the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, a government agency as is the FDA, has published guidelines for mifepristone administration in their National Guidelines Clearinghouse.  The following guideline is level A evidence, the highest and most reliable evidence available:

Compared with the FDA-approved regimen, mifepristone-misoprostol regimens using 200 milligrams of mifepristone orally and 800 micrograms of misoprostol vaginally are associated with a decreased rate of continuing pregnancies, decreased time to expulsion, fewer side effects, improved complete abortion rates, and lower cost for women with pregnancies up to 63 days of gestation based on last menstrual period.

I have argued against non-FDA-approved use of Pitocin to induce labor electively.  However, there is no evidence base for the use of Pitocin for non-medically indicated deliveries.  As you can read in my previous posts (here and here), Pitocin is a high-alert medication with many dangerous side effects.  Its elective use has no known benefit other than convenience.  The new guidelines for mifepristone use, on the other hand, are based on evidence and involve giving a woman less medication rather than more.

That legislators would ignore a large, reliable body of scientific research does not inspire my confidence in their understanding of safety.  If they really care about the health and safety of women and babies, restricting off-label Pitocin use would be a much more effective technique.

It should be noted that while a law was passed in Arizona imposing this restriction and was upheld by a federal judge in Tuscon on April 1, 2014, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals issued a stay on the legislation on April 2.  Thus, the only state implementing this restriction as of April 2014 is Texas.

If you view yourself as a human rather than a political pawn, you might want to say so.  If you value your freedom to rather than your freedom from, you might consider fighting for that freedom.  And if you are a woman in Texas who cares about her health, you may want to move.

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) and the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) released a joint statement on laboring and birthing in water, Committee Opinion #594: Immersion in Water During Labor and Delivery.  You can read the whole opinion here.  While they concede that laboring in water reduces pain, reduces use of epidurals and other pharmaceutical pain relief, and shortens labor, they come down against birthing in water. Their arguments are a little odd.

First, they make no universal recommendations that water submersion be available to laboring women.  The benefits are obvious–there are no side effects from water as pain relief, women like it, and it shortens labors without increasing risk or pain (as Pitocin augmentation does when it is used to shorten labor).  As both epidurals and Pitocin augmentation are ubiquitous at births attended by obstetricians, even though both carry risks, why would they not recommend that water submersion be available to all women as an alternative?

waterbirth 2

Their statement against birthing in water is based on what are called “case reports.”  These are generally considered the lowest form of scientific evidence–if you could even call them scientific.  A case report is essentially a statement that someone saw something happen, but with no scientific comparison or exploration of alternative explanations.  Thus, if a baby had a bad outcome after a water birth that could be attributed to the water birth, a case report may assume it is attributable to the water birth.  This is a bit like saying, “My Aunt Myrtle went out walking in a blue hat and she fell down, so wearing blue hats must make people fall down,” or “My friends didn’t vaccinate their kids and the kids have not died of whooping cough.”

Ultimately, the opinion concludes,

The safety and efficacy of immersion in water during the second stage of labor have not been established, and immersion in water during the second stage of labor has not been associated with maternal or fetal benefit. (emphasis mine)

waterbirth 1

But immersion in water during birth has been associated with multiple benefits during the birth (not just labor).  These include:

I am not sure why these would not be considered evidence of benefit.

The committee opinion itself says,

[T]he only difference in maternal outcomes from immersion during the second stage was an improvement in satisfaction among those allocated to immersion in one trial.

Apparently, women’s satisfaction with their birth experience is not worthy of consideration as a benefit.

This dismissal of women’s experience is mirrored in other recommendations.  For instance, ACOG’s recommendation on management of labor states,

Patients should be counseled that walking during labor does not enhance or improve progress in labor nor is it harmful.

Why bother telling the patient anything if this is the case?  Why not “counsel” her to do whatever makes her feel most comfortable?

ACOG’s Practice Bulletin on labor induction makes no note of maternal pain or preferences, except in cases of fetal demise, where it indicates that “patient preference” may be a consideration.  The only mention of “discomfort” is in reference to membrane stripping, but it is not indicated that potential discomfort should be a consideration when deciding whether or not to do the procedure.

So who benefits if water birth is prohibited?  The AGOG/AAP opinion indicates a number of potential harms to the infant, including drownings, near drownings, and respiratory distress.  However, they also note that the Cochrane Review on water birth did not come to the same conclusion:

Morbidity and mortality, including respiratory complications, suggested in case series were not seen in the 2009 Cochrane synthesis of RCTs, which concluded that, “there is no evidence of increased adverse effects to the fetus/neonate or woman from laboring in water or water birth.”

waterbirth 3

They suggest however, that the randomized control trials (RCTs) were not large enough to pick up on “rare but potentially serious outcomes.”  This is the same reasoning given by the the chief of obstetrics at Massachussetts General Hospital, Michael Greene, for ignoring the results of a large randomized control trial that showed the safety of planned vaginal birth for twins.  Basically, he said, he wanted to keep practicing the way he always had and saw no compelling reason to change.

It is frustrating to see physicians making bold statements against something women want when not only is there no scientific evidence to support their view, the most rigorous evidence that exists actually comes to the opposite conclusion.  Both doctors and midwives in the United Kingdom endorse water birth, stating that basic safety should be practiced and that the people attending the birth should be properly trained:

Both the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists and the Royal College of Midwives support labouring in water for healthy women with uncomplicated pregnancies. The evidence to support underwater birth is less clear but complications are seemingly rare. If good practice guidelines are followed in relation to infection control, management of cord rupture and strict adherence to eligibility criteria, these complications should be further reduced.

The United Kingdom has better birth outcomes than the U.S.  Though water birth itself likely has nothing to do with that, it does seem like an American focus on a process that has, as ACOG and AAP acknowledge, no scientific evidence of harm, is misplaced.

This leads to the consideration of who does benefit from a policy of banning water birth.  Most doctors have not been trained in how to perform water births and may have never seen one.  Nancy Shute writes on NPR’s health news site,

[I]t’s hard not to get the sense that this also may be a bit of a battle for control over the birthing process.

hospital birth

Barbara Harper, founder of Waterbirth International,  teaches all over the world. This is her official response to the ACOG/AAP opinion:

There are no bad outcomes, nothing that would lead ACOG to issue this statement at this time. Doctors see that women want options that are out of their comfort zone, educational scope and experience and it pushes the envelope for freedom of choice and human rights. It is a basic human right to birth without drugs or intervention or interference of any kind. If that can be integrated into a hospital setting, great. But, it still makes doctors nervous because their training demands that they ‘do’ something at a birth instead of sit by and knit or take the photos. This is why I have titled my new book, ‘Birth, Bath and Beyond.’ Waterbirth gives you the ability to watch birth happen, relax with it, witness the miracle – and it changes the way you approach all other births after you experience it. Waterbirth equates liability in the litigious world that we live in. Waterbirth challenges the conventional ‘security oriented/risk management’ approach to maternity care.  The science behind waterbirth, coupled with the experience of at least a quarter of a million women who have done it, will dictate policy and not the opinion of any organization, even ACOG and the AAP.

As a commenter on the NPR piece, Erin Shetler, says,

There are risks and benefits of every type of birth intervention, including water births. But you don’t see ACOG coming out with news releases about the risks of epidurals (increased C-section rate), vacuum extraction (cephalatoma in a newborn’s brain), induction (increased risk of uterine rupture and fetal distress), episiotomy (increased likelihood of third- or fourth- degree tearing) and other common practices because these are risks they feel comfortable taking. The risk of infection increases with every pelvic exam during labor, but that doesn’t stop most doctors from doing several. Some of the drugs used for induction are very commonly used “off-label,” meaning that their use is not approved by the FDA. Look up the facts. No matter what kind of birth you like or endorse, coming out against water births because they have a few risks while staying mum and/or endorsing other interventions is disingenuous at best.

It’s worth noting that there are doctors and hospitals that do support water births, so this committee opinion is not universal.

If ACOG wants to develop a committee opinion that is truly in the interests of women’s health and not the physician’s bottom line or comfort zone, they might issue strongly worded opinions against practices with no scientifically established benefits and well established harms, such as pregnancy bed rest.

Plus, women don’t like bed rest.  Perhaps that should be worthy of consideration as well.

 

Updates

Barbara Harper on “Why Pediatricians Fear Waterbirth.”  Her evidence-based review points out misinterpretations and misrepresentations of research in the ACOG/AAP statement.

American Association of Birth Centers (AABC) Position Statement on waterbirth.  AABC has a long record of conducting waterbirths safely.

New recommendations from both the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) and the Society for Maternal Fetal Medicine (SMFM) seem revolutionary.  Their new joint consensus statement advises abandoning the time restrictions on labor established by misguided adherence to Friedman’s Curve.  Here are some of the new recommendations, which are designed to lower the primary cesarean rate:

  • Allowing prolonged latent (early) phase labor.
  • Considering cervical dilation of 6 cm (instead of 4 cm) as the start of active phase labor.
  • Allowing more time for labor to progress in the active phase.
  • Allowing women to push for at least two hours if they have delivered before, three hours if it’s their first delivery, and even longer in some situations, for example, with an epidural.
  • Using techniques to assist with vaginal delivery, which is the preferred method when possible. This may include the use of forceps, for example.

Aside from being written as if an epidural is unusual (60%-80% of first time mothers have epidurals), these guidelines have amazing potential to lower the rate of cesareans by justifying longer time for women to labor and reducing obstetricians’ justifications for their “failure to wait.”

The question remains, however, whether these new guidelines really will change practice in any meaningful way.  Even the joint consensus statement from ACOG and SMFM says,

Changing the local culture and attitudes of obstetric care providers regarding the issues involved in cesarean delivery reduction also will be challenging.

They go on to note that systemic change (meaning things like changes in required hospital protocols) is likely to be essential for significant practice change to occur, and they also argue for tort reform (discussed below).

People often say that obstetricians perform cesareans because the reimbursement is higher, and there are studies that indicate that this is true.  Doctors, however, are not always paid more for cesareans, and when they are, the difference is often only a few hundred dollars–not chump change, but probably not the major motivator for those in one of the most highly paid medical specialties.  The increase in birth costs for cesareans is primarily for the hospital resources: the operating room, post-operative care, and a longer hospital stay for the woman and her baby.  Contrary to what some studies have found, according to a conversation I had with Alabama Medicaid officials, when Alabama changed its Medicaid reimbursement a few years ago to be the same for cesareans and vaginal births, officials were disappointed to find it did not reduce the cesarean rate.  Here is a graph based on CDC data from Jill Arnold’s CesareanRates.com:

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So what does drive high cesarean rates if it’s not all about the financial greed of physicians looking to make a couple hundred bucks through slice and dice obstetrics?

Some cite malpractice suits as a major motivator.  While malpractice premiums do appear to impact c-section rates, the effect is relatively small.  Rather than actual malpractice suits, according to Theresa Morris’ Cut it Out, it is  fear of them that drives OBs toward cesareans.  According to Childbirth Connection’s comprehensive report, Maternity Care and Libility, ACOG’s 2009 survey of OB practitioners reported that liability fears had led 29% of respondents to increase their use of cesarean and 26% to stop performing VBACs. Here’s another graph from Jill:

lawsuit csec

In his excellent New Yorker article on “how childbirth went industrial,” Atul Gawande points to the predictability and reliability of cesarean over vaginal birth, which makes doctors likely to choose cesarean over less invasive procedures (such as forceps deliveries) that may be risky in the hands of those without enough training, experience, or practice:

Is medicine a craft or an industry? If medicine is a craft, then you focus on teaching obstetricians to acquire a set of artisanal skills….if medicine is an industry, responsible for the safest possible delivery of millions of babies each year, then the focus shifts. You seek reliability. You begin to wonder whether forty-two thousand obstetricians in the U.S. could really master all these techniques….[O]bstetricians decided that they needed a simpler, more predictable way to intervene when a laboring mother ran into trouble. They found it in the Cesarean section….We have reached the point that, when there’s any question of delivery risk, the Cesarean is what clinicians turn to—it’s simply the most reliable option….Clinicians are increasingly reluctant to take a risk, however small, with natural childbirth.

Yet c-sections also pose real risks, as this table from the joint consensus statement indicates:

Table 1. Risk of Adverse Maternal and Neonatal Outcomes by Mode of Delivery
Outcome Risk
Maternal Vaginal Delivery Cesarean Delivery
Overall severe morbidity and mortality*† 8.6% 9.2%*
0.9% 2.7%†
Maternal mortality‡ 3.6:100,000 13.3:100,000
Amniotic fluid embolism§ 3.3–7.7:100,000 15.8:100,000
Third-degree or fourth-degree perineal laceration|| 1.0–3.0% NA (scheduled delivery)
Placental abnormalities¶ Increased with prior cesarean delivery versus vaginal delivery, and risk continues to increase with each subsequent cesarean delivery.
Urinary incontinence# No difference between cesarean delivery and vaginal delivery at 2 years.
Postpartum depression|| No difference between cesarean delivery and vaginal delivery.
Neonatal Vaginal Delivery Cesarean Delivery
Laceration** NA 1.0–2.0%
Respiratory morbidity** < 1.0% 1.0–4.0% (without labor)
Shoulder dystocia 1.0–2.0% 0%
Abbreviations: CI, confidence interval; NA, not available; NICU, neonatal intensive care unit; OR, odds ratio; RR, relative risk.

(Note that cesarean’s near-quadrupling of maternal death risk is not causing a call to ban non-medically essential cesarean).

Another factor in physician preference for cesarean–one that is closely tied with money–is time.  As one prominent obstetrician once told me, the money itself isn’t the issue–what’s a couple hundred dollars to someone whose salary is well into six figures?  It’s time.  A cesarean takes 40 minutes.  A vaginal birth can drag on for hours and hours, and the timing is completely unpredictable.

This report on Maternity Care Payment Reform from the National Governors Association explains that the optimum timing possible with cesarean is personally convenient as well as financially lucrative–but not because of the payment for the cesarean itself:

[P]lanned cesarean deliveries have lower opportunity costs for obstetricians and facilities. For facilities, spontaneous vaginal deliveries may be more difficult to plan and manage compared to scheduled cesarean deliveries. With a planned cesarean delivery, hospitals can schedule operating room time and ideal hours for nursing staff. For providers, scheduling a cesarean birth ensures that they will be the ones to perform the delivery and they will not have to transfer care and associated payment to a colleague or be delayed from office or other hospital duties.11 In addition to securing reimbursement, having scheduled births allows providers more time to schedule billable procedures.

Even in vaginal births, the emphasis many obstetricians put on time is obvious.  Elective inductions allow for births to be scheduled at the physician’s convenience (and while this may sometimes be convenient for the pregnant woman also, you can bet that she does not get to pick a time that would be inconvenient for her doctor).  ACOG guidelines on labor induction and augmentation discuss the reduction in labor time that can occur with Pitocin administration in positive terms (without any indication that this is preferred by laboring women).

In my tours of hospital labor units, it has not been uncommon for every laboring woman on the board to have a Pitocin drip to “help them along.”  A friend of mine–one who was amenable to a highly medicalized birth and had an epidural in place–said her obstetrician walked into the room when she had dilated to 10 centimeters and said, “Okay, you have two hours to push this baby out and then I’m going to have to do a cesarean.”  This did not even meet old time guidelines, which indicated a three hour pushing time for first time mothers who had an epidural.

The website My OB Said What? is full of anecdotes about practitioners who value their own time over the normal progression of  labor.  A few examples:

Some doctors also feel a therapeutic mandate to “do something,” which is often counterproductive in a normal labor.  Obstetrician and ethicist Paul Burcher notes that a “therapeutic imperative” is essentially another term for “the inertia that prevents physicians from abandoning ineffective therapies because no better alternative yet exists.”  Burcher is writing about bed rest, but as with threatened miscarriage, the current “better alternative” in a normal labor is to do nothing at all.  As Dr. Burcher says,

It takes courage to do nothing, but when we have nothing of benefit to offer we must refrain from deluding ourselves and harming our patients.

Here’s hoping that ethics will trump time and money and lead to genuine change in practice.  But given the historic difficulties obstetricians have with implementing evidence based practice and the slow obstetric response to reducing (rather than increasing) intervention, given the average time it takes to put an innovation into routine practice, we may have at least 17 years to wait.

The Choosing Wisely campaign was begun in order to reduce unnecessary use of medicine and medical procedures.  Non-medically indicated use is unsafe for patients as well as being expensive.  Not only are there costs involved in the medicine or procedure itself, but there are also costs in treating side effects and other health consequences.

The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) has a list they made for the Choosing Wisely campaign, “Five Things Physicians and Patients Should Question.”  The top two items on the list are about elective induction of labor (these two items also made the American Academy of Family Physicians list).  The first warns against scheduling a delivery (cesarean or induction) before 39 weeks unless there is a clear medical indication.  Here is the text of the second:

Don’t schedule elective, non-medically indicated inductions of labor between 39 weeks 0 days and 41 weeks 0 days unless the cervix is deemed favorable:  Ideally, labor should start on its own initiative whenever possible. Higher Cesarean delivery rates result from inductions of labor when the cervix is unfavorable. Health care practitioners should discuss the risks and benefits with their patients before considering inductions of labor without medical indications.

This is similar to the information I provided in my posts on Pitocin and elective inductions.  Before 41 weeks, unless there is a clear medical indication, labor should begin on its own.  Note the caveat that if an elective induction is to occur, the cervix should be “favorable.”  A laywoman might ask what this means.  A favorable cervix is soft, effaced and dilated.  But really the standard that physicians use for determining whether a woman’s body is ready to labor is the Bishop score.

In 1955, Dr. Edward Bishop published a paper (subscription needed to get text) on elective induction of labor in which he looked at the likelihood of induction success based on several factors: fetal position, cervical softness, cervical effacement, cervical dilation, and the “station” of the fetus (how far it was engaged in the woman’s pelvis).  We might question the ethics of inducing labor without medical indication, but Dr. Bishop did find that if the baby was anterior and the cervix was soft,  higher levels of effacement, dilation and engagement made elective inductions likely to work and labors were more likely to be shorter.  This chart from Preparing for Birth sums it up:

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Bishop’s scoring system is still used and has some accuracy at predicting the likelihood of an induction’s success.  Some doctors use a simplified score that just looks at effacement, dilation, and station.

Here are some graphs from Intermountain Healthcare’s care process model on elective induction:

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You can see that higher Bishop scores lead to higher likelihood of a successful induction, and that the higher the score, the shorter the labor.

Nulliparous women (first time mothers) are especially likely to have cesareans when they have lower Bishop scores.  It is important to note, however, that even with a favorable Bishop score, nulliparous women are much more likely to have a cesarean than they would be if labor began on its own, and they are more likely to have operative deliveries (forceps or vacuum).

Dr. Gene Declercq of Boston University and colleagues run a wonderful site call Birth by the Numbers and produced this chart with data from Listening to Mothers III:

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This data does not imply that an induction cannot be successful, that no one should have an epidural, or that a cesarean might not be necessary for reasons having nothing to do with inductions or epidurals.  But the data do give credence to the idea of choosing wisely.  Taking Pitocin to start labor in an uncomplicated pregnancy before 41 weeks is akin to taking high blood pressure medicine when your blood pressure is normal (credit Debra Bingham).  The Bishop score may help to determine if the medicine will not hurt you, but why take it in the first place?  If you do want to go the induction route, however, your Bishop score is a tool to let you know how likely an elective induction is to lead to unnecessary major surgery.

All inductions should be done with full informed consent and should not be scheduled around a care provider’s office hours, vacation time, or child’s birthday party.  The well being of the pregnant woman and her fetus and the woman’s informed choice should be the only considerations.  A woman is a human being and not a vessel to be manipulated for the convenience of others.

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