Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Physician Liability

I heard Dr. Marsden Wagner, a perinatologist and former director of Women's and Childrens' Health for the World Health Organization (WHO) talk about liability risks for obstetricians who are finding themselves getting sued every time someone doesn't end up with a perfect baby.

Dr. Wagner made a statement that I will never forget. He said,

"If you're going to play God in the delivery room, you're going to get blamed for natural disasters."

Herein I believe, lies the biggest solution to our liability crisis. Doctors have led people to believe that they are "God" and if their patients will only come to the hospital where things are "safe" and where the "best medicine in the world" can take care of them, they can sit back and relax and wait for the doctor to produce a pink, squalling baby.

People are no longer being good healthcare consumers. It is implied at their very first visit that the doctor is in completely in control of everything that could happen and has a drug for every problem at his/her disposal and the eventual outcome will be secured if the doctor is allowed to "work their magic."

"So, honey, hop right up here on the exam table and put this paper gown on... We'll take a peek and tell you exactly what is happening inside you..."

Of course, people are angry and disillusioned when they obeyed all the rules, and did things the "safe" way - only to end up with this - a damaged or dead baby.

What is the solution?

The solution is better informed consumers. It's partly the health care system's fault and it's partly our own fault as consumers if we don't "read the labels" on what we're ordering.

Monday, September 24, 2007

The C-section Epidemic - Jennifer Block

A fabulous op-ed piece, published in the LA Times, written by Jennifer Block, author of "Pushed: The Painful Truth about Childbirth and Modern Maternity Care."

More women are dying in childbirth thanks to the high numbers of doctors and mothers who opt out of normal delivery.
By Jennifer Block
September 24, 2007
Pre-term births are on the rise. Nearly one-third of women have major abdominal surgery to give birth. And compared with other industrialized countries, the United States ranks second-to-last in infant survival. For years, these numbers have suggested something is terribly amiss in delivery wards. Now there is even more compelling evidence that the U.S. maternity care system is failing: For the first time in decades, the number of women dying in childbirth has increased.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention last month released 2004 data showing a rate of 13.1 maternal deaths per 100,000 live births. For a country that considers itself a leader in medical technology, this figure should be a wake-up call. In Scandinavian countries, about 3 per 100,000 women die, which is thought to be the irreducible minimum. The U.S. remains far from that. Even more disturbing is the racial disparity: Black women are nearly four times as likely to die during childbirth than white women, with a staggering rate of 34.7 deaths per 100,000.

These high rates aren't a surprise to anyone who's been investigating childbirth deaths. Physician researchers who have conducted local case reviews across the country consistently have found death rates much higher than what the CDC has been reporting. In New York City between 2003 and 2005, researchers found a death rate of 22.9 per 100,000; in Florida between 1999 and 2002, the rate was 17.6. Other reports by CDC epidemiologists have acknowledged that deaths related to childbirth are probably underreported by a factor of two to three.

What's to blame for the poor U.S. showing? True, we are the only industrialized country without universal healthcare. But when it comes to childbirth, we basically have it. Ninety-nine percent of women give birth in a hospital with access to all the bells and whistles -- high-tech machines that continuously monitor the baby's heart rate, drugs that can control the speed of contractions like the volume on a stereo, instruments that can coax a reluctant head out of the birth canal, and surgeons at the ready to perform the mother of all interventions, the caesarean section.

The C-section, now used to deliver 30% of American babies, is such a norm these days that, in some places, doctors and women have taken to calling it "C-birth" or even just "having a 'C.'" Pet names aside, the procedure is major surgery, and although it saves lives when performed as an emergency intervention, it causes more harm than good when overused. Here's why: Caesareans are inherently riskier than normal, vaginal birth. They also lead to repeat caesareans. And repeat caesareans carry even greater risks.

Placenta accreta is one of them. The placenta embeds into the uterine scar from a previous surgery, causing a catastrophic hemorrhage at the time of delivery. Most women with placenta accreta lose their uteri; as many as 1 in 15 bleed to death. In 1970, accretas were so rare that most obstetricians never encountered one in their career. Today, according to a University of Chicago study, the incidence may be as high as 1 in 500 births. And that is all because of caesareans and repeat caesareans.

Obesity plays a part as well because obese women are more likely to have health problems that make a caesarean more likely, and more likely to suffer surgical complications. Still, it all comes back to the "C," which could easily stand for "culprit."

According to a sweeping 2006 study by the World Health Organization, published last year in the medical journal Lancet, a hospital's caesarean rate should not exceed 15%. When it does, women suffer more infections, hemorrhages and deaths, and babies are more likely to be born prematurely or die.

Too many caesareans are literally medical overkill. Yet some U.S. hospitals are now delivering half of all babies surgically. Across the nation, 1 in 4 low-risk first-time mothers will give birth via caesarean, and if they have more children, 95% will be born by repeat surgery. In many cases, women have no choice in the matter. Though vaginal birth after caesarean is a low-risk event, hundreds of institutions have banned it, and many doctors will no longer attend it because of malpractice liability.

American maternity wards are fast becoming surgical suites. We've become dangerously cavalier about it, but the caesarean rate should be a major public health concern. Universal care alone won't solve the problem; what pregnant women need is entirely different care. They need doctors and hospitals that promote normal labor and delivery. Of course, reducing obesity belongs on the healthcare agenda, and so does curtailing the scalpel.


Friday, September 21, 2007

Case Study Reveals Economic and Political Forces that Hinder Access to Midwifery Care

Goodman, S. (2007).

Summary: This qualitative case study analysis illuminates the forces behind the underutilization of midwives in the U.S. maternity care system and the process of their professional marginalization. The researcher identified two prominent midwifery services that had good outcomes and were connected with prestigious and influential institutions. One was a university-affiliated hospital practice that had provided uninterrupted midwifery service to the community for nearly five decades. The other was a birth center in continuous operation for nearly 30 years and hospital-owned for the final seven. Both practices were threatened with closure in 2003. In the case of the university-affiliated practice, the midwives ultimately maintained their ability to practice but the hospital imposed restricted clinical practice guidelines resulting in an 84% decrease in the number of midwife-attended births and a number of midwives leaving the service. The birth center practice closed abruptly in a decision handed down by the hospital without the involvement of the center's Board of Directors. In order to understand the circumstances behind the closures, the researcher conducted 52 in-depth interviews with midwives, nurses, service administrators, childbirth educators, policymakers, and physicians and reviewed archival data such as email correspondence, policy statements and memos.

In both cases, the publicly articulated reason for the attempted or actual closure of the midwifery services appeared to be reasonable. In the university-affiliated practice, the hospital claimed that too many of the women in the neighborhoods served by the hospital were high-risk and midwifery care was therefore unsafe. In the case of the birth center, the hospital reported that the decision to close was prompted by a 400% increase in malpractice insurance premiums. In neither case did the hospital provide any documentation or other evidence to support these rationales for closure. Interviews and analysis of archival data revealed that the midwifery services represented competition to the hospital, local physicians, or both. The case of the university-affiliated midwifery practice was particularly overt: the hospital had recently paid a multi-million dollar fine for double-billing the Medicaid program for births attended by midwives - once for the midwife and again for the consulting physician. When this fraudulent practice was discovered and the hospital was censured, midwives became a source of competition rather than income. In the case of the birth center, five-fold growth in the number of birth center births over the time the hospital had ownership may have appeared to be siphoning business away from the hospital's labor and delivery unit. Despite these potentially powerful economic and political motives for closing the midwifery services, the public were led to believe that the decisions were driven by rational concerns about safety and liability. The author concluded, "In the cases studied, institutions successfully altered maternity care and diminished midwifery services without accountability for their actions. In fact, the elimination of midwives seemed to be a rational decision when framed in the context of patient safety and the rising cost of medical malpractice" (p. 9).

The author explored aspects of the U.S. health care system that facilitate professional marginalization of midwives. The most problematic is the way the U.S. medical education system is funded. Hospitals essentially get paid twice for care provided by medical residents because they can bill directly for the care and also receive large subsidies from the federal Medicare program in exchange for providing residency opportunities. The more residents a hospital employs, the more federal money they get, so there is a government-imposed disincentive for hospitals to employ midwives. Furthermore, in many states midwives must have formal practice agreements with physicians in order to obtain licenses, liability insurance, reimbursement, or hospital privileges. This requirement makes midwives dependent on their competition in order to gain access to employment. Finally, midwives' reliance on low-tech care practices result in lower utilization of medical devices and services that may be separately billable.

Significance for Normal Birth: Advocates for improvements in maternity care are often at a loss to explain why childbearing women cannot access care providers who support normal birth. Normal, physiologic birth, it would seem, must be less costly than technology-intensive birth. Solving this paradox requires an understanding of the political and economic forces that foster dependency on high-cost obstetrics to the detriment of women and babies. While this study is small and focused on two specific examples of midwifery service closures, it provides important insight into the systemic forces that hinder women's access to midwifery care despite a large body of evidence that midwives provide equal or better care than physicians with lower reliance on costly technical interventions. The study documents how our market-based health care system safeguards the interests of the medical profession which can often be at odds with those of women, babies, and society.

Radical, systemic reforms are needed if the United States hopes to achieve a high-functioning maternity care system, characterized by effective, high-quality care, universal access, and cost containment. Evidence from countries with excellent maternity care outcomes suggest that eliminating barriers to midwifery care must be a priority. Birth advocates can begin by calling for accountability and transparency from hospitals and maternity care providers.