Archives for posts with tag: Obstetrics

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.
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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.

 

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.

 

Image The cesarean rate is Brazil has been high for a long time, and it is getting higher.  In private hospitals, almost all women deliver by cesarean; in public hospitals it’s about half.  According to Ricki Lake, who went to Brazil in the process of filming The Business of Being Born, “There was actually a joke circulating that the only way to have a natural birth in Rio was if your doctor got stuck in traffic.”  Brazil’s childbirth practices have come to attention recently because of Adelir Carmen Lemos de Góes, who on April 1, 2014, was taken by police to have a forced cesarean under court order.  Here’s an account of what happened from The Guardian:

…Brazilian mother Adelir Carmen Lemos de Góes was preparing for her third birth. Despite living in a country with one of the highest caesarean rates in the world (82% for those with private insurance and 50% for those without), she was looking forward to giving birth vaginally after previously having caesareans she felt were unnecessary.  However, in the midst of her labour, six armed police banged on her front door. Despite there being no question of reduced mental capacity, doctors had obtained a court order allowing them to perform a caesarean…Adelir was taken from her home, forcibly anaesthetised and operated on without consent.

Attorney Jill Filopovic writes,

A Brazilian court granted a prosecutor’s request for the appointment of a special guardian. And just in case it was unclear whose life gets prioritized when a woman has a c-section against her will, the judge specified that when there is a ‘conflict of interests of the mother with the child’s life … the interests of the child predominate over hers.’

Filopovic quotes Dr. Simone Diniz, associate professor in the department of maternal and child health at the University of São Paulo: 

In our culture, childbirth is something that is primitive, ugly, nasty, inconvenient….It’s part of Catholic culture that this experience of childbirth should come with humiliation.

The Atlantic subsequently ran a longer piece by Olga Khazan, “Why Most Brazilian Women Get C-Sections,” which, also points to a confluence of attitudes, practices, policies, and norms that lead to a trend toward universal cesarean.  Humiliation isn’t hard to come by in Brazilian obstetrics.  Khazan reports,

Many physicians’ attitudes toward childbirth weave together Brazil’s macho culture with traditional sexual mores….When women are in labor, some doctors say, ‘When you were doing it, you didn’t complain, but now that you’re here, you cry.’

Mariana Bahia, who participated in protests against forced cesarean, noted:

There’s no horizontality between patients and doctors.  Doctors are always above us.

And Paula Viana, head of a women’s rights organization, said,

We have a really serious problem in Brazil that the doctors over-cite evidence [of fetal distress].  They think they can interfere as they would like.

But much of what these various articles says about childbirth in Brazil is eerily similar to what happens in the United States.  Khazan quotes Maria do Carmo Leal, a researcher at the National Public Health School at the Oswaldo Cruz Foundation about birth practices in Brazil:

Here, when a woman is going to give birth, even natural birth, the first thing many hospitals do is tie her to the bed by putting an IV in her arm, so she can’t walk, can’t take a bath, can’t hug her husband. The use of drugs to accelerate contractions is very common, as are episiotomies.  What you get is a lot of pain, and a horror of childbirth. This makes a cesarean a dream for many women.

In the United States, Pitocin induction and augmentation are ubiquitous , and episiotomies, though less common than in Brazil, are still greatly overused.  Almost all U.S. hospitals use IV hydration as a matter of policy (rather than allowing women to eat and drink as they please, which is the evidence based recommendation).  And in the U.S., taking a bath in labor may be impossible, as many hospitals do not provide bathtubs out of a misguided fear of women attempting waterbirths. The website My OB Said What documents a seemingly endless stream of U.S. health professionals’ humiliating comments, such as referring to a pregnant women as a “little girls,” criticizing their weight, or belittling their pain.

Court ordered cesareans occur in the United States as well, as Erin Davenport documents in “Court Ordered Cesarean Sections: Why Courts Should Not Be Allowed to Use a Balancing Test.”  Davenport notes that forced cesareans are generally ordered because of concerns for fetal welfare–as in Brazil, U.S. courts often privilege the rights of the fetus over those of the pregnant woman.

Alissa Scheller created infographics on Huffington Post showing how states’ policies are used to persecute and prosecute pregnant in the name of fetal welfare.

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National Advocates for Pregnant Women, whose research supplied much of the information for the above graphic, documents the legal control of pregnant women that occurs in the name of fetal rights, such as prosecuting a woman for murder after a suicide attempt while pregnant (in this case, the baby–born by cesarean–was alive, but died a few days later).

While the cesarean rate in the United States is much lower than in Brazil, a third of U.S. births are by cesarean, more than double the “threshold not to be exceeded” identified by the World Health Organization.  Khazan notes the parallels between Brazil’s medical system and the the system in the U.S.–both incentivize cesareans:

With the higher price of the private system [in Brazil] comes better amenities and shorter wait times, but also all of the trappings of fee-for-service medical care. C-sections can be easily scheduled and quickly executed, so doctors schedule and bill as many as eight procedures a day rather than wait around for one or two natural births to wrap up.

As in Brazil, though some cesareans performed in the U.S. are certainly in the interest of maternal and/or fetal well-being, many are in the interest of the obstetrician’s well-being.  There is still a convenience factor; in addition, OB-GYN Dr. Peter Doelger said doctors and hospitals are protecting themselves by following protocols based a fear of litigation:

So you’re stuck with this situation where we’re doing things, not based on science.  [The increase in C-sections is] really based on protecting the institution and ourselves. And, you can’t blame them. Getting sued is a horrible thing for the physician, a horrible thing for the nurse, and a horrible thing for the institution.

And the woman?  Well as long as the baby is healthy, does she matter?

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.

Medical practice has many issues around informed consent, with many procedures being routinely performed with no shared decision making process, no informed consent, or no permission at all.  Rebecca Dekker of Evidence Based Birth wrote than in her training as a nurse,

I was taught to say, ‘I am going to listen to your lung sounds now.’ My instructors told me that the patient would be less likely to refuse if I simply stated what I was doing, instead of asking permission. I practiced that way– and even taught nursing students that way– for several years. (emphasis mine)

This seems relatively innocuous when it involves listening to lung sounds, but has more onerous implications for pregnancy and childbirth.  Training to make statements is training for practitioners to say, “I am going to cut an episiotomy now” or “I need to do a cesarean.”  It may be true that the procedure is a good idea, but it is not acceptable to tell a woman that you are going to do something to her body.  A woman needs to have to opportunity not only to consent to a procedure, but also to refuse it.

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Sometimes practitioners do not even say what they are going to do–they just do it.  Sometimes they tell the woman after it has been done, as in this case from My OB Said What?:

‘I gave you an episiotomy.’ – OB to mother after birth. Nothing was mentioned about an episiotomy being needed during the birth, and when the mother screamed in pain when the OB touched her, both the OB and the L&D nurse insisted the OB was just ‘stretching’ her.

Or this one

‘We will go ahead and schedule your cesarean section now.’ —OB to mother with two prior cesareans, at the mother’s 10 week prenatal appointment, after the mother indicated that she wanted to have a VBAC.

Sometimes the practitioner doesn’t tell tell woman anything, and she finds out what happened by reading her chart or talking about her case with a different practitioner, as in this report from Cookieparty at Community Baby Center:

I remember my OB saying he was stitching me and I was like oh I must have torn. He didn’t even tell me he did [an episiotomy], I found out later that day or the next day I think, when one of the nurses was tending to it. [It] pissed me off!

Instruction on “Patient Rights” from The Birth Place of UCLA Medical Center make it sound that their belief is that women do not have the right to refuse what health practitioners want to do in any case.  Their responsibility is to follow the rules and cooperate (emphasis mine):

Patient Responsibilities
As a patient, you have the responsibility to:

  • Treat those who are treating you with respect and courtesy.
  • Be considerate of the rights of other patients and hospital personnel.
  • Observe the medical center’s rules and regulations, including the Visitor and No Smoking policies.
  • Be as accurate and complete as possible when providing information about your medical history and present condition, including your level of pain.
  • Cooperate fully with the instructions given to you by those providing your care.
  • Fulfill the financial obligations of your health care, know your insurance benefits and eligibility requirements, and inform the hospital of changes in your benefits.
  • Provide a copy of your Advance Directive (Durable Power of Attorney for Healthcare) if you have one.

In their Committee Opinion “Elective Surgery and Patient Choice,” the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) says that OBGYNs may perform unnecessary surgeries upon a woman’s request, including cesareans, as long as the woman is adequately informed of the risks and alternatives and the OBGYN believes the surgery is not an undue health threat:

Performing cesarean delivery on maternal request should be limited to cases in which the physician judges that it is sufficiently safe, given the specifics of the woman’s pregnancy and setting, and has had the opportunity for thorough and thoughtful conversation with the patient.

In their Committee Opinion “Maternal Decision Making, Ethics, and the Law,” ACOG points out

  • Appellate courts have held…that a pregnant woman’s decisions regarding medical treatment should take precedence regardless of the presumed fetal consequences of those decisions.
  • [M]ost ethicists also agree that a pregnant woman’s informed refusal of medical intervention ought to prevail as long as she has the ability to make medical decisions
  • [I]n the vast majority of cases, the interests of the pregnant woman and fetus actually converge.
  • Because an intervention on a fetus must be performed through the body of a pregnant woman, an assertion of fetal rights must be reconciled with the ethical and legal obligations toward pregnant women as women, persons in their own right….Regardless of what is believed about fetal personhood, claims about fetal rights require an assessment of the rights of pregnant women, whose personhood within the legal and moral community is indisputable.

Two of the main conclusions of this committee opinion are

  • Coercive and punitive legal approaches to pregnant women who refuse medical advice fail to recognize that all competent adults are entitled to informed consent and bodily integrity.
  • Court-ordered interventions in cases of informed refusal, as well as punishment of pregnant women for their behavior that may put a fetus at risk, neglect the fact that medical knowledge and predictions of outcomes in obstetrics have limitations.

However, the obstetric community continues to bully women into acquiescing to procedures that the obstetric team wishes to perform, and women are still persecuted for refusing procedures both legally and socially, even when these procedures are not evidence based.

Even when medical professionals do explain risks and benefits to a procedure, they often expect a woman to draw the same conclusion that they do regarding what should be done.  The flip side of informed consent, however, is informed refusal.  Women not only have the right to know what their options are, they have the right to choose the option they believe is right, regardless of what their health practitioner believes.

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