Lamaze International’s Recommendations for Preventing Maternal Deaths
The Joint Commission Sentinel Alert #44: “Preventing Maternal Deaths” is an important document and public recognition that many of the maternal deaths in the United States are preventable. However, the alert is missing important and useful information for women and childbirth educators since the recommendations in the alert are downstream approaches or recommendations for how to save a woman from dying who may have been thrown in the river. It fails to alert our healthcare system about the need to keep women out of the river in the first place.
Let me give you some examples:
One Joint Commission recommendation is to consistently use techniques that have proven effective in the prevention of thromboembolism (blood clots) in women having surgical births. Clearly it is critical that we reduce the risks of surgery and this recommendation needs to be heeded. We need to make surgical births as safe as possible. However, if we eliminated the overuse of cesarean sections we would eliminate even more deaths and injuries. Based on publicly released data, the increase of cesarean surgical intervention is related to where a woman gives birth.
Indeed there is often as much as a three-fold variation in the number of surgical births performed at different hospitals even after adjusting for the woman’s age and risk factors. Reining in practice variation has been a focus of efforts to improve care in other healthcare specialties, yet wide and unwarranted practice variation remains a serious problem in maternity care.
So why are there so many more surgical births and such wide variation in rates of cesarean sections? Well one clear factor at work is variation in how women are treated in labor. For example, some hospitals keep women who present in early labor while other hospitals are more likely to offer supportive care to these women and encourage that they remain at home until active labor. Why is being in a hospital in early labor a problem? When a woman is in a hospital in early labor she is put in a bed, her movements are restricted, and she is tethered to a fetal monitor. None of these interventions has been shown by research to improve maternal or infant outcomes, and in fact they all have documented harms. In addition, it is normal and expected for early labor to start and stop for several days. However, if a woman is admitted to a hospital in early labor and her labor stops then she is likely to have an unnecessary induction of labor. Overuse of inductions lead to more cesarean sections. This becomes the beginning of a cascade of events that all too often leads to a surgical intervention.
Let’s move to the hemorrhage recommendations as another example. Hemorrhage remains a leading cause of death and severe morbidity despite more efforts over recent years to control blood loss at birth. Why haven’t these efforts succeeded? One reason is that as the cesarean rate rises, more pregnant women have uterine scars. The uterine scar increases a woman’s risk for abnormal placenta implantation when they get pregnant again. These abnormal placenta implantations are called percretas, accretas and previas. When a woman has placenta accreta or percreta this can lead to internal organ damage and permanent damage to her uterus because the placenta literally grows into the uterine muscle or even into her bowel and bladder and cannot detach from these organs after the baby is born. This abnormal implantation leads to hemorrhage and also often necessitates the removal of her uterus to save her life. Abnormal placenta implantations used to be very rare emergencies; they are becoming common now due to the overuse of cesarean sections. This is a trend that is frightening to me because based on the current rates of cesarean sections the number of women affected will only increase. Things are going to get much worse.
Lamaze International has issued our own “Sentinel Alert” on how to prevent maternal deaths. Lamaze’s recommendations are called the Six Healthy Birth Practices. Following these key practices will prevent women from being thrown in the river and needing to be rescued.
The critical behaviors that Lamaze recommends to improve health and safety are to let labor start on it’s own, encourage freedom of movement, offer labor support rather than labor management, avoid all routine interventions not supported by evidence, avoid interfering with a woman’s freedom to push in an upright position or any position of her choice, and keep the baby with the mother after birth.
Hospitals can help achieve the Joint Commission goal of reducing preventable maternal deaths while also making progress toward Joint Commission core measures by training staff in these practices. Lamaze International offers an Evidence-Based Nursing Care Workshop to do just that. Registration is currently open for our March workshop in Hollywood, Florida.
Debra Bingham, DrPH, RH, LCCE is President-Elect for Lamaze International, Executive Director of the California Maternal Quality Care Collaborative (CMQCC), a member of the California Pregnancy-Associated Maternal Mortality Review Committee and a lead researcher for determining how to prevent maternal deaths.