The real safety issues in maternity care

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Maternity care provides a classic example of the pitfalls of a specialist-driven model of practice in health care. It results in more expensive and interventionist care, rather than a community-based approach which could also help ensure a more equitable distribution of services. It has led us to talk about obstetrics, which implies a focus on a particular professional group, rather than maternity care, which implies a broader focus on the woman’s and baby’s needs, both before and well after the birth.

Professor Lesley Barclay ... is a leading proponent of the need to reorient maternity care around the needs of women and babies ...

“When women talk about what matters to them when it comes to childbirth, the issue they repeatedly mention is safety.

But their understanding of safety around childbirth is often quite different to how health systems and many professionals define it.

For women, a safe childbirth is not only about what occurs at the time of the birth. It also refers to longer-term issues, such as their social and emotional wellbeing in the weeks and month after the birth.

When women talk about safety, they are also thinking about the increased rates of depression and anxiety that manifest after operative birth or the consequences of wound infection on general health.

The Australian health system often makes it difficult for women to make wise choices around birth ...

For example, evidence shows for most women most of the time birth does not need to take place in hospital. Some women will only feel safe however, whether this is evidence-based or not, with specialist medical services and technology.

The term “maternity care” ... incorporates their social and emotional needs. It puts them – rather than the professional or the service ...

Evidence shows maternity care can be provided by both midwives and obstetricians in public and private sector hospitals and can be safely provided at home.

... evidence also shows that safety from morbidity is less likely for Australia’s healthiest and wealthiest women cared for by private obstetricians in private hospitals. More recent epidemiological evidence shows as volumes of operative birth increases, deaths of mothers and infants are also increased by overuse of the very operation that was developed to save lives.

So where does choice fit in this repertoire of terms, locations, professionals, services and outcomes?

Safe birth should be the goal of choices offered to women and decisions taken by those who provide care for them.

Unfortunately, the choices some professionals offer or accept are self or income centered and ignore evidence. As a consequence of gender-located power historically, and a rapid increase in the numbers of more technically oriented professionals in recent decades, health services and costs do not reflect women’s needs or evidence.

The most important example of this is allowing caesarean birth to be a choice rather than only using this as the lifesaving emergency procedure it is.

... caesarean birth is rapidly becoming a life threatening procedure itself because of excessive use ... maternal death reviews and coroner’s reports now show the risks attached to using a major surgical procedure as a routine mode of birth.

Maternal mortality is between two and seven times higher for surgical than vaginal birth ...

... The physical, social and emotional morbidity attached to women who experience this mode of birth is not recognised therefore ignored within acute care hospitals but is evident in their homes and the community.

Research has identified that physical morbidity associated with CS is five to ten times higher than for women birthing vaginally. No less importantly there are also psychosocial consequences of surgical birth with women less satisfied, more concerned about the baby’s condition and fearful. Women delivering by CS report feeling less in control than women who have birthed vaginally.

Research also shows rates of post natal depression significantly different between women who birthed vaginally and the group of women who delivered either by planned or unplanned CS ... Women who birth by CS evaluate their babies less favourably, are less likely to breastfeed and/or feed for a shorter duration.

Paradoxically, the choice to have a normal, safe, confidence affirming birth that is low cost and relieves pressure on hospitals is only available to a small minority of women.

This is not possible for Australia’s most vulnerable women and families, who, the evidence suggests, would benefit most. How many rural or remote living Aboriginal women can opt for a home birth attended by a skilful midwife?

... 1 in 10 remote living Aboriginal women in one large community avoid hospital services or skilled professionals because of the unacceptable risks to them of being evacuated from their community ...

Other Australian women with more options are also taking this route, fed up with what they see as biased, self-interested advice and unacceptable risks of our current system.

To have real choices, one needs options and good information on which to base decisions. Better resourced women ... can chase evidence themselves, or question doctors, hospitals and midwives ...

... there are some ultimate arbiters beyond opinion. One of these is the impartial review of evidence provided by such as the Cochrane data base.

I saw to my great delight a writer (male and medically qualified) who also a Member of Parliament, recently quoting this source in a newspaper. His message, while aimed at indemnifying home birth midwives, was that home birth is safe.

... home birth is indeed safer at times than hospital birth when planned and supported by good hospital care for rare emergencies.

I wish the current president of the AMA, an erstwhile obstetrician, would be similarly correct with his claims that certainly are not recognisable as fact to those familiar with the evidence.

Choices for women are difficult when all they receive is highly partial and ill-informed opinion. Choices around birth are important or women will opt out of a system that does not meet their needs.

.... Should it be a matter of choice though for women to give birth via major abdominal surgery? Should we permit choice that means their babies avoid the process of vaginal birth that prepares them to live and breathe? Should it be women’s or obstetrician’s choice that health pays or heavily subsidises the avoidable costs of unnecessary operations that prevent other necessary surgery being performed and add to waiting lists? I think not.

We need to recognise that operative birth is the option to use only when the risks associated with the alternative are unacceptable. This is not a matter of choice.”

Melissa Maimann, Essential Birth Consulting 0400 418 448