Healthy Birth Blog Carnival #4: Avoid interventions that are not medically necessary

February 8th, 2010 by avatar

We’ve been featuring each of the Six Lamaze Healthy Birth Practices in our series of blog carnivals, and this time we’re talking about interventions. Interventions in labor and birth can be helpful – even life-saving. But there’s no denying the fact that too often they are used when a safer, more supportive approach would have worked just as well or better.

Ya Say You Want an Intervention? Well, You Know…

Women need the information about what interventions might take place in labor, when they are beneficial, what the risks are, and how to minimize those risks. Rachel Leavitt at The Beginnings of Motherhood offers a very balanced discussion of the pros and cons of two very common interventions: epidurals and pitocin. Desirre Andrews at Preparing for Birth shares a list of “hidden in plain sight” interventions that may affect a woman’s emotional state, slow her labor progress, or even cause physical harm. Lauren Wayne at HoboMama writes about her experience with an intervention that can sometimes seem invisible – vaginal exams. Well Rounded Mama discusses the disproportionate use of various interventions in women of size and argues for a supportive, proactive approach to preventing labor dystocia.

Interventions carry risks of other interventions, which introduce risks of their own. Carol van der Woude cared for a woman whose labor turned complicated and high tech when the simple act of breaking a woman’s water set into motion a cascade of intervention. It’s an all-too-common story she she tells in her post, One Thing Leads to Another. Code Name Mama also describes a typical cascade-of-interventions birth story, contrasts that story with her real birth story (made safely possible by the supportive care of a midwife and a few interventions used judiciously), and provides a treasure trove of information about all of the interventions she could have ended up with but didn’t. Kiki at The Birth Junkie describes her birth planning process as “a domino effect in reverse” – in learning how to avoid a much-unwanted episiotomy she was forced to explore alternatives to lying flat on her back and discover that many routine labor interventions restricted mobility. Learning long before labor begins about interventions and knowing which you’re okay with and under which circumstances is essential for informed decision making, she argues.

Having Interventions: An Experience in the Eye of the Beholder

When we talk about interventions that are “medically necessary” it implies that sometimes the use of interventions (and their downstream effects) are unnecessary. In reality, there are few if any interventions in labor for which you can draw a perfect line between “necessary use” and “unnecessary use”, and different women are willing to accept different risks and value different benefits, so an objective assessment of necessity may in fact be meaningless. Rixa Freeze of Stand and Deliver explores this issue in her post, Necessary/Unnecessary, a round-up of four birth stories, and suggests an alternative view:

The prominent theme in these four sets of birth stories is that the women who felt the interventions were necessary and welcome … rather than unnecessary and traumatizing…, freely chose the interventions on their own–on their own request, on their own timetable, and on their own initiative. They knew it was time for assistance. They were the primary actors in their births, rather than recipients of others’ agendas. They held the locus of control, even when that meant asking others to do things for or to them at some point (IV, epidural, Pitocin, or c-section).

One of the birth stories Rixa reflected upon was that of my sister, Katherine. Katherine, who shared her story at her midwife’s blog, Women in Chargeplanned a home birth and ended up with a c-section after over three days of labor. Her birth story offers an important example of midwife-led physiologic care with timely access to needed interventions, given in a humane, and respectful manner.  Over the phone just a half a day after her cesarean, Katherine told me her birth was “fun” and audibly beamed with pride and amazement, which was about the most inspiring thing I’ve experienced in a very long time.

At the other end of the spectrum are the women whose “care” in labor is emotionally or even physically traumatic and who experience lack or loss of autonomy. Jenne Alderks at Descent Into Motherhood advocates for women who experience their births as trauma (as many as 9% of women, according to the Listening to Mothers II Survey) and coordinates a support group at Solace for Mothers. Jenne writes about these issues in the context of  her own traumatic birth story in which her efforts to exercise her right to informed refusal led her midwife to kick her out of the hospital.

Changing the Culture of Birth

Women can protect themselves from unnecessary interventions by choosing a care provider and birth setting with low intervention rates. Unfortunately, most women currently lack access to the information they need to assess intervention rates in their communities. I spoke about this issue last month with Danielle from Momotics in her radio show on the importance of Transparency in Maternity Care.

We don’t have adequate transparency now, and until we do, women will have to find out about routine practices at community hospitals by asking hospital staff or local birth advocates. Sheridan Ripley at the Enjoy Birth Blog brings us through a four part story of a woman who learned about routine hospital practices during a tour of the labor and birth unit and made a courageous choice to change hospitals and care providers just days before her estimated due date. The result was worth it!

Greater transparency is only one aspect of a larger political and cultural shift needed to reduce unnecessary interventions. Maureen Finneran Hetrick writes about some of the health care reform efforts currently underway, including payment reform and midwifery legislation, that might help rein in intervention rates in her guest post at the ICAN blog, Can healthcare reform decrease unnecessary interventions? Mom’s Tinfoil Hat gives readers an update on her fellowship research examining obstetrical culture by assessing obstetricians’ knowledge of the evidence basis for various common interventions and their attitudes toward routine use.

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  1. | #1

    What a great collection..I hope I can read them all. Thanks for putting this together.

  2. | #2

    Great list! Here’s another one for you on cervical exams:


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    | #3

    As a midwife, avoiding unnecessary interventions is my goal. I was interested in the story of your sister who even though had a birth completely different then she planned, felt positive. Most midwives I know already buy the package about avoiding interventions, now I want to know how to help a woman walk away from unplanned interventions and still feel OK with her birth. As a provider I try to explain things and my reasons for suggesting interventions as much as possible and consider her desires as just as important as long as safe, but there can come a time when we differ. This is where I wish more research could be done. What needs to occur for the woman to feel she was heard and involved in the decision making- (especially because she is usually in pain and exhausted at the time)? Emotions and vested interest is high, exhaustion over whellming, plans abandoned- for all involved. It is a moment of true loss during labor that I am always afraid I may take advantage of or worse she may walk away from with less power then she walked into it. This is especially true when moving from an out of hospital birth (where even the envirnment speaks shared power) to the hosptial.

  4. | #4

    Thanks so much for hosting and compiling all these articles! I appreciate Jen’s comments, as well. There are so many emotions and expectations bound up in labor and birth that it’s hard to know when to accept interventions. In my own case of a home birth turned non-emergent hospital transfer based on my midwives’ recommendations, I’ve done a lot of second guessing and what-if scenarios, but the conclusion I keep coming to is that it was indeed the best course of action to have transferred. Not ideal, but the best choice under the circumstances. And I do appreciate my midwives’ wisdom and experience in knowing that it was the best choice but giving me the power to make it.

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