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.