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Mother’s Day Maternal Health Update

Posted May 04 2011 10:14pm

Pregnant Woman, Moralis Yannis, 1948 (Image by Tilemahos Efthimiadis via Flickr)

Pregnant Woman, Moralis Yannis, 1948 (Image by Tilemahos Efthimiadis via Flickr)

Inspired to act to reduce maternal mortality after she survived a postpartum hemorrhage, renaissance woman Christy Turlington has been making the rounds promoting her documentary No Woman No Cry , which tells the stories of at-risk pregnant women in Bangladesh, Guatemala, Tanzania, and the United States.  If you have been in a Starbucks lately you may have seen the compilation compact disc of the same name, the proceeds of which support the advocacy organization Turlington founded, Every Mother Counts .  As Turlington writes , “almost all of the hundreds of thousands of maternal deaths that occur each year are preventable. Yes, 90 percent !”

While the developing world bears the brunt of the global burden of maternal mortality and morbidity, the United States is not immune.  Women in 49 other countries have a better chance of surviving childbirth.  Passage of the Maternal Health Accountability Act of 2011 , which was introduced by Representative John Conyers (D-MI) on March 3, 2011 and is currently pending in the House Committee on Energy and Commerce’s Subcommittee on Health, would be an important step towards redressing the problem of maternal mortality and morbidity here at home.

Among other things, the Act would provide funds to states to improve the reporting and tracking of pregnancy-related deaths.  In a recently-released report , the Council of State and Territorial Epidemiologists noted that maternal & child health “is the one program area in which overall state-level epidemiology and surveillance capacity increased progressively from 2004 to 2009, bucking the trend of an overall decrease in state-level epidemiology capacity.”  On the other hand, “the MCH epidemiology capacity glass is only half full: nearly half of all states lack even substantial MCH epidemiology and surveillance capacity, and in only a minority of jurisdictions do MCH epidemiologists participate substantially in policy development; have access to important data sets; and work with colleagues in substance abuse, mental health, and occupational health.”

The Maternal Health Accountability Act would also direct the National Institutes of Health to “organize a national workshop to identify definitions for severe maternal morbidity and make recommendations for a research plan to identify and monitor such morbidity in the United States.”  As the Act’s findings section explains, “[s]evere complications that result in women nearly dying, known as a ‘near miss’ or severe morbidity, according to some estimates, increased by 25 percent between 1998 and 2005, to approximately 34,000 cases a year. However, there is no scientific consensus on uniform definitions of severe maternal morbidity and best practices for data collection, making it difficult to measure the full extent of severe morbidity and developing evidence-based interventions.”  Finally, the Act would direct the Secretary of Health and Human Services to conduct research and establish demonstration projects targeting the stark geographic, racial, and socioeconomic disparities in maternal health outcomes.  According to Amnesty International’s Spring 2011 Deadly Delivery report , “[n]ew government data shows that for 2005-2007, the maternal mortality ratio (deaths per 100,000 live births) was highest among non-Hispanic black women (34.0), followed by American Indian/Alaska Native women (16.9), Asian/Pacific Islanders (11.0), non-Hispanic whites (10.4), and Hispanics (9.6).”

Importantly, tackling the problem of maternal mortality and morbidity need not wait until Congress acts.  In an article in the April issue of the American Journal of Obstetrics & Gynecology, Hospital Corporation of America, a chain of 114 inpatient facilities that claims to be the “largest obstetrical health care delivery system in the United States,” reported on its highly-successful obstetric patient safety program.  Among other things, HCA expanded the number of free, online programs it offers on topics such as fetal heart rate monitoring, postpartum hemorrhage, and shoulder dystocia, with the goal of educating providers and ensuring that they use “common terminology and thus avoid potentially hazardous miscommunication.”  In addition, HCA engaged in process standardization efforts including the development of checklist-based protocols and supported the development of national quality metrics to facilitate benchmarking.  HCA has been effective at reducing elective delivery before 39 weeks gestation and it “instituted a policy of universal perioperative pneumatic compression device use in all patients undergoing cesarean delivery.”  (I discussed the latter intervention here .)  HCA reports that its efforts have paid off, not just in outstanding perinatal outcomes, but also in reductions in litigation, as reflected by reported claims.  In 2009, the company’s losses due to “accidents on hospital grounds” exceeded its losses due to maternal mortality and morbidity.  Even more impressive, its “perinatal loss (in dollars) … is rapidly approaching the level of loss seen in the category ‘occupational therapy.’”

HCA opines “that adoption of our approach on a national level could, within 5 years, both dramatically reduce adverse perinatal outcomes and to a large extent eliminate the current national obstetric malpractice crisis.  In reality, a relatively small number of repeated errors lead to most preventable adverse outcomes, and may be reduced by the approaches outlined above.”  The company is not optimistic that its approach will be widely adopted, however, because it believes that efforts to improve perinatal outcomes have been hindered by “an alternative culture in which physician autonomy and anecdotal experience trump available data and the recommendations of the Institute of Medicine, contributing to a ‘normalization of deviance’ at odds with a safety-based culture.”  I wonder how physicians would respond to this interesting and provocative claim.  Might they argue that hospital policies and practices are at least in part to blame for our stalled efforts to reduce maternal mortality and morbidity?

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