Patient safety, disciplinary action, and the marginalization of midwives
It sounded like an April Fools joke, except the story broke two days early. Doctors in North Carolina induced and ultimately performed a cesarean on a woman who wasn’t pregnant.
The case happened in 2008 but we all learned about it this week because the North Carolina Medical Board finished their investigation and issued “letters of concern” to the doctors involved. Public letters of concern appear to be the least punitive disciplinary action performed by the state Medical Board, according to their list of published board orders (PDF).
To which I respond: Letters of concern? Seriously???
The consensus on Facebook and around the web was that if midwives had been involved in an incident of this magnitude, they would have had their licenses revoked post-haste. Why? Because all kinds of disciplinary actions are made against midwives, whether they are practicing safely or not. Very often, the complaint is issued by a physician rather than a patient. It’s all part of what Marsden Wagner, perinatal epidemiologist and former director of Women’s and Children’s Health in the World Health Organization, in an editorial in the Lancet, called:
a global witch-hunt…the investigation of health professionals in many countries to accuse them of dangerous maternity practices. This witch-hunt is part of a global struggle for control of maternity services, the key underlying issues being money, power, sex, and choice.
Midwives practicing in states that refuse to license direct-entry midwives are the most vulnerable. Consider the case of Ohio Mennonite midwife, Freida Miller, who was jailed for appropriately administering a life-saving medication, pitocin, to a woman experiencing a postpartum hemorrhage. For cultural and religious reasons, the women in the community Miller served would be unlikely to accept routine hospitalization for childbirth unless the benefits clearly outweighed the risks, which for many women they don’t. Rather than equip the midwife with a drug (pitocin) that is considered so essential for women’s safety that it is given routinely to all women birthing in hospitals, the government removed the community’s midwife altogether. In the name of public safety.
Even when midwives are licensed, they are not immune from predatory disciplinary action. A licensed midwife in California was issued a cease and desist order at gunpoint and ultimately had to surrender not just her midwifery license but her licenses to practice as a registered nurse and a nurse practitioner. The complaint was made by a physician in the community, not a patient. Among the board’s findings: she performed a vaginal exam before labor (routine practice in most obstetric offices), failed to obtain informed consent before performing an episiotomy (true of approximately 25% of all episiotomies performed in hospitals, according to the Listening to Mothers II survey), and failed to clearly chart the course of treatment for a patient (Didya ever hear the one about the doctor with bad handwriting?). To be fair, the investigation revealed evidence of other, more serious transgressions, but the scale of the disciplinary action seems out of proportion with the evidence, especially when we consider what obstetricians have to do to have their licenses revoked. (Seriously, googling “obstetrician license revoked” yields surprisingly few cases and most include drinking on the job, having sex with patients, or having a pattern of many preventable bad outcomes.)
Midwives who have avoided disciplinary action by state boards may be arbitrarily deemed unsafe by hospital administrators. By publicly citing safety concerns but keeping the details sufficiently vague, hospitals succeed in forcing midwives out. Cases that have been analyzed in the research literature reveal economic motives, however. A hospital in California recently suspended the privileges of a group of nurse-midwives, stating that the absence of a neonatal intensive care unit at the hospital rendered its patients safe only in the hands of obstetricians. Never mind that the only randomized, controlled trial reporting admission to a special or intensive care nursery showed higher rates in the physician group than the midwife group (9.4% vs. 7.9%).
Is Disciplinary Action the Best Way to Protect Patient Safety?
We need to stop the predatory use of state and hospital disciplinary action against midwives, and equalize the process for all categories of care providers. But whether disciplinary action is against midwives or physicians, is punishment the best way to deal with breaches in patient safety? After several high-profile cases in which health care professionals went to jail for making medical mistakes, the patient safety community is rallying around alternatives to punishment, and producing evidence that these alternatives are in fact more effective.
As nurse and patient safety expert, Barbara Olson, argues in one the posts that made me fall in love with her blog (the other post being her birth story), punitive actions, especially when they are the only actions taken, do not address the root causes of unsafe care, nor do they make care safer.
We can and will argue about what constitutes the safest kind of care. But perhaps we should instead be asking what kind of maternity care system can most reliably deliver safe care. Achieving such a system will take a collaborative effort among all types of health care professionals and the women they care for. Fortunately, some brilliant minds have been hard at work determining what such a collaborative effort might look like. The Institute for Healthcare Improvement is sponsoring a webinar on April 8 titled, “Momentum for Maternity of the Safest Kind.” The speakers, who include Maureen Corry and Rima Jolivet from Childbirth Connection, will discuss the recent work of the Transforming Maternity Care Project. If you have been eager to hear more about this work, this is a great opportunity.
So, should the doctors who performed the ultimate in unnecesareans have gotten more than letters of concern? Probably. Maybe. It’s hard to know without knowing what the root cause analysis – please tell me they did one – revealed. But there must have been other opportunities for such a breach of safety to have been avoided. A system that can so completely lose sight of patient safety desperately needs to have its assumptions, routines, and safeguards examined.
When preventing avoidable harm is a fundamental aim of a maternity care system, the logical strategy is to address the root causes of injury, and to arrange care and resources to keep women and babies safe. That’s exactly what midwives do, yet instead of embracing them, our system marginalizes them.