Practice Variation in Cesarean Rates: Not Due to Maternal Complications

By Pam Vireday

Pam Vireday, an occasional contributor to Science & Sensibility reviews the recent study by Katy Kozhimannil, PhD and colleagues that examined the differences in cesarean rates between over a thousand hospitals in the USA.  Consumers of maternity care quite possibly do not realize what a significant impact their choice of facility (and provider) may have on their birth outcome.  Can you think of hospitals in your own community serving similar populations of pregnant families that have drastically different cesarean rates.  Have you considered why that might be?  Do you think that the families you work with have explored this too?  Do they even have access to this information?  Read Pam’s discussion of this recent study below.  – Sharon Muza, Community Manager, Science & Sensibility.

© Patti Ramos Photography

© Patti Ramos Photography

There’s a new study out that discusses the variation in cesarean rates between hospitals in the United States. “Maternal clinical diagnoses and hospital variation in the risk of cesarean delivery: Analyses of a national US hospital discharge database” was released late last month and has received a lot of press and discussion ever since.

Practice variation is a serious problem in obstetrics (Arcia 2013). Women are often far more at risk for a cesarean in certain hospitals than in others, even when the hospitals serve the same geographical area and population (Arnold, January 2013 and August 2012).

Of course, care providers protest that some hospitals have higher cesarean rates because they serve higher-risk patients. This is a valid point, but it still doesn’t explain the wide variation in rates between many hospitals (Clark 2007).

For example, in a press release about the new study, the mother’s risk status and diagnoses did not explain the variation in cesarean rates between hospitals:

“We found that the variability in hospital cesarean rates was not driven by differences in maternal diagnoses or pregnancy complexity,” said [lead study author] Kozhimannil. “This means there was significantly higher variation in hospital rates than would be expected based on women’s health conditions. On average, the likelihood of cesarean delivery for an individual woman varied between 19 and 48 percent across hospitals.”

Other key points highlighted included:

  • Among lower risk women, likelihood of cesarean delivery varied between 8 and 32 percent across hospitals.
  • Among higher risk women, likelihood of cesarean delivery varied between 56 and 92 percent across hospitals.
  • Hospital variability did not decrease after adjusting for patient diagnoses, socio-demographics, and hospital characteristics.

This shows that practice variation in cesarean rates is real, substantive, and not just a reflection of the mother’s risk level. 

Perhaps now we can stop playing the mother blame-game when we talk about cesarean rates? (Declerq 2006, Oganowski 2011)

This study is not the first to show that the culture of a hospital, its policies, and its routine practices all help determine how likely a woman is to “need” a cesarean in that hospital.

For example, Cáceres 2013 found that even after adjusting for socio-demographic and clinical factors and including only NTSV (Nulliparous, Term, Singleton, Vertex) pregnancies, the cesarean rate varied significantly between Massachusetts hospitals, “suggesting the importance of hospital practices and culture in determining a hospital’s cesarean rate.”

In addition, a 2014 consensus statement from the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists and the Society for Maternal-Fetal Medicine notes, “Variation in the rates of nulliparous, term, singleton, vertex cesarean births also indicates that clinical practice patterns affect the number of cesarean births performed.”

Preventing cesareans when possible is important because while cesareans can be life-saving at times, they present more risk for maternal infection, bleeding and blood clots, and more neonatal breathing problems (Liu 2007, Visser 2014).

Notably, a large case-control study in U.K. maternity units found that delivery by cesarean was a strong risk factor for severe sepsis (Acosta 2014). Other research has found a high rate of maternal complications (Pallasmaa 2010) and poorer neonatal outcomes (Kolås 2006) associated with cesareans.

In addition, a cesarean’s potential negative effect on future pregnancies is important (Silver 2012). One American study found that the rate of an abnormal placental attachment increased in conjunction with the rise in cesarean delivery rate (Wu 2005), while a Canadian study found that a prior cesarean was associated with an increased risk for adverse neonatal outcomes in subsequent pregnancies (Abenhaim and Benjamin 2011).

Bottom line, it matters where and with whom a woman gives birth in order to lessen the risk for complications, both now and in the future.

But many women naively choose their care provider for pregnancy based mostly on convenience and location, not realizing that their chances of surgical birth may vary greatly depending on which hospital and caregiver they use (Arnold 2014, Arnold January 9 2013).

Childbirth Connection, a leading consumer education site, points out:

Research suggests that the same woman might have a c-section at one hospital but a vaginal birth if she gave birth at another, just because of the different policies and practices of those hospitals. One of the most effective ways to lower your chance of having a c-section is to have your baby in a setting with a low c-section rate.

Yet it is not always easy to find out the cesarean rates of local hospitals in some areas. For example, the health departments of MissouriSouth Carolina, and Washington D.C. do not make hospital-level cesarean rates available to consumers.

Hospitals remain largely unaccountable for high cesarean rates, although we are beginning to see marginal progress in some places towards more accountability (Gentry 2014 and Dekker 2014). In the meantime, however, thousands of women are undergoing cesareans, many of which might be preventable with changes in clinical practices (Boyle 2013).

And even when a cesarean is truly necessary, there can be large discrepancies in complications afterwards between hospitals (Alonso-Zaldivar 2014). It’s not just about how many cesareans are done, but also about which hospitals have the best outcomes when a cesarean isdone. Without more information, how is a woman to know which hospital to choose?

Bottom line, more transparency and accountability are needed. As the lead author of the study states:

Women deserve evidence-based, consistent, high-quality maternity care, regardless of the hospital where they give birth…and these results indicate that we have a long way to go toward reaching this goal in the U.S.

*To search for hospital-level cesarean rates in your area, see www.cesareanrates.com or the 2014 Consumer Reports article (subscription required) rating hospitals in 22 states.

Do you ever encourage your students and clients to look at the cesarean rates (and rates of other interventions which may lead to cesareans) of the hospitals they are considering birthing in.  Please share your experience in our comments section. – SM

References

Abenhaim, H. A., & Benjamin, A. (2011). Effect of prior cesarean delivery on neonatal outcomes. Journal of perinatal medicine39(3), 241-244. PMID: 21426242

Acosta, C. D., Kurinczuk, J. J., Lucas, D. N., Tuffnell, D. J., Sellers, S., & Knight, M. (2014). Severe Maternal Sepsis in the UK, 2011–2012: A National Case-Control Study. PLoS medicine11(7), e1001672. PMID: 25003759

Alonso-Zaldivar, R (2014, August 27). Study: Wide hospital quality gap on maternity care. Retrieved from http://www.fosters.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20140827/GJLIFESTYLES/140809539/0/SEARCH.

Arcia, A (2013, February 3). What is practice variation in obstetrics and why should I care? Retrieved from http://www.cesareanrates.com/blog/2013/2/3/what-is-practice-variation-in-obstetrics-and-why-should-i-ca.html.

Arnold, J (2012, August 22). Practice variation in New Jersey: 27 miles and 28 percentage points. Retrieved from http://www.cesareanrates.com/blog/2012/8/22/practice-variation-in-new-jersey-27-miles-and-28-percentage.html.

Arnold, J (2013, January 9). Practice variation in East Los Angeles cesarean rates. Retrieved from http://www.cesareanrates.com/blog/2013/1/9/practice-variation-in-east-los-angeles-cesarean-rates.html.

Arnold, J (2013, January 7). Practice variation in West Virginia: 60 miles and 54 percentage points. Retireved from http://www.cesareanrates.com/blog/2013/1/7/practice-variation-in-west-virginia-60-miles-and-54-percenta.html.

Arnold, J (2014, March 13). Three miles/Cinco Kilometros. Retrieved from http://www.cesareanrates.com/blog/2014/3/13/three-miles-cinco-kilometros.html.

Boyle, A., Reddy, U. M., Landy, H. J., Huang, C. C., Driggers, R. W., & Laughon, S. K. (2013). Primary cesarean delivery in the United States. Obstetrics & Gynecology122(1), 33-40. PMID: 23743454

Cáceres IA, Arcaya M, Declercq E, Belanoff CM, Janakiraman V, Dohen B, Ecker J, Smith LA, Subramanian SV (2013). Hospital differences in cesarean deliveries in Massachusetts (US) 2004-2006: the case against case-mix artifact. PLOS One, 8(3):e57817. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0057817. PMID: 23526952

Clark SL, Belfort MA, Hankins GD, Meyers JA, Houser FM (2007). Variation in the rates of operative delivery in the United States. American journal of obstetrics and gynecology, 196(6):526.e1-526.e5.  PMID: 17547880

Caughey, A. B., Cahill, A. G., Guise, J. M., & Rouse, D. J. (2014). Safe prevention of the primary cesarean delivery. American journal of obstetrics and gynecology,210(3), 179-193. doi: 10.1016/j.ajog.2014.01.026. PMID: 24565430

Declercq, E., Menacker, F., & MacDorman, M. (2006). Maternal risk profiles and the primary cesarean rate in the United States, 1991–2002. American journal of public health, 96(5), 867. PMID: 16571712

Dekker, R (2014, October 29). U.S. hospitals held accountable for C-section rates. Retrieved from http://www.birthbythenumbers.org/?p=1731

DePoint, M (2014, October 22). Maternal diagnoses doesn’t explain variation in cesarean rates across US hospitals. University of Minnesota, School of Public Health. Retrieved from http://sph.umn.edu/maternal-diagnoses-doesnt-explain-variation-cesarean-rates-across-us-hospitals/.

Gentry, C (2014, May 14). FL still C-section hotspot. Retrieved from http://health.wusf.usf.edu/post/fl-still-c-section-hotspot.

Kolås, T., Saugstad, O. D., Daltveit, A. K., Nilsen, S. T., & Øian, P. (2006). Planned cesarean versus planned vaginal delivery at term: comparison of newborn infant outcomes. American journal of obstetrics and gynecology,195(6), 1538-1543. PMID:16846577

Kozhimannil KB, Arcaya MC, Subramanian SV (2014). Maternal clinical diagnoses and hospital variation in the risk of cesarean delivery: Analyses of a national US hospital discharge database. PLoS medicine, 11(10):e1001745. doi: 10.1371/journal.pmed.1001745. PMID: 25333943

Liu, S., Liston, R. M., Joseph, K. S., Heaman, M., Sauve, R., & Kramer, M. S. (2007). Maternal mortality and severe morbidity associated with low-risk planned cesarean delivery versus planned vaginal delivery at term. Canadian medical association journal176(4), 455-460. PMID: 17296957

Oganowski, K (2010, January 13). The C-section blame game: I’ve reached my boiling point. Retrieved from http://birthingbeautifulideas.com/?p=1245.

Pallasmaa, N., Ekblad, U., AITOKALLIO‐TALLBERG, A. N. S. A., Uotila, J., Raudaskoski, T., ULANDER, V., & Hurme, S. (2010). Cesarean delivery in Finland: maternal complications and obstetric risk factors. Acta obstetricia et gynecologica Scandinavica89(7), 896-902. PMID: 20583935

Phend, C (2013, March 5). C-Section rates vary widely between hospitals, study finds. MedPage Today. Retrieved from http://abcnews.go.com/Health/section-rates-vary-widely-hospitals-study-finds/story?id=18656847.

Silver, R. M. (2012, October). Implications of the first cesarean: perinatal and future reproductive health and subsequent cesareans, placentation issues, uterine rupture risk, morbidity, and mortality. In Seminars in perinatology (Vol. 36, No. 5, pp. 315-323). WB Saunders. PMID:23009962

Visser GH (2014). Women are designed to deliver vaginally and not by Cesarean section: An obstetrician’s view. Neonatology107(1):8-13. PMID: 25301178

What every pregnant woman needs to know about Cesarean section (2012). Childbirth Connection. Retrieved from http://www.childbirthconnection.org/pdfs/cesareanbooklet.pdf.

What hospitals don’t want you to know about C-sections (2014, May). Consumer Reports. Retrieved from http://consumerreports.org/cro/2014/05/what-hospitals-do-not-want-you-to-know-about-c-sections/index.htm.

Wu, S., Kocherginsky, M., & Hibbard, J. U. (2005). Abnormal placentation: twenty-year analysis. American journal of obstetrics and gynecology192(5), 1458-1461. PMID: 15902137

A version of this post originally appeared on www.wellroundedmama.blogspot.com

About Pam Vireday

kmom_avatar

Painting by Mary
Cassatt, 1844-
1926. (public
domain) Image from
Wikimedia Commons.

Pam Vireday is a childbirth educator, writer, woman of size, and mother to four children. She has been collecting the stories of women of size and writing about childbirth research for 17 years. She writes at www.wellroundedmama.blogspot.com and www.plus-size-pregnancy.org.

2 Comments

Practice Variation in Cesarean Rates: Not Due to Maternal Complications

November 14, 2014 07:00 AM by Jacqueline Levine, LCCE,FACCE,CD, CLC
In this blog, back as far as ’09, I wrote about studies showing that docs do sections for reasons that have nothing whatever to do with the genuine health status of mother and baby. I wrote about one study that examines how fears of liability cause docs to section defensively, another about docs with an abundance of “state anxiety”…so nervous docs do more sections than calm ones. And then there’s one where ACOG studied its own practices and proudly pronounced that only 30% of its protocols are based on good scientific evidence. In further recognition of the arbitrary-ness of performing sections, this year ACOG and the Society for Maternal- Fetal medicine published their consensus paper on how to avoid the primary cesarean, a tacit admission that section rates must be lowered to improve maternal-fetal health. Docs all know that cesareans are their tool and that they can wield it pretty much at will. How many birthing women do we all know who have been bullied and threatened and frightened into a section? But here’s why I’m writing today. This bit of news is really horrifying: a three-and-a-half year RCT, called the QUARISMA study, involving 32 hospitals and over 100,000 deliveries showed that a mere 2-day “on-site training workshop for health professionals that focused on the best clinical practices for intrapartum care” “can not only reduce the chance of cesarean delivery, but can also reduce neonatal major morbidity. All that was needed to reduce sections was a 2-day workshop? What kind of sub-standard care was being practiced at those hospitals until then? What can you think when you find out that a little 2-day “intervention” changed clinical practices enough to lower not just the section rate, but reduced the use of induction, pit, and operative vaginal delivery? Had all those caregivers just “forgotten” how to give good care, how to practice good medicine? And all they needed was a little reminder? Doesn’t every hospital need that little 2-day intervention, then? Here’s the citation. Read the study and draw your own conclusions. Optimal maternity care is still way too hard to get. Society for Maternal-Fetal Medicine (SMFM) 34th Annual Meeting: Abstract 1. Presented February 6, 2014.Medscape Medical News © 2014 WebMD, LLC Cite this article: Training Reduces Cesarean Delivery and Neonatal Morbidity. Medscape. Feb 07, 2014.

Practice Variation in Cesarean Rates: Not Due to Maternal Complications

December 1, 2014 07:00 AM by Becky
I JUST found out i am pregnant with baby #4 and im already being told how reckless i am because i want to vba3c. In short im terrified of being bullied yet again for a rcs if i go to a hospital. Healthcare providers panic too easily and spread negativity basically the whole pregnancy when they have no idea about statistics. Im a nurse and my collegues think because theyve seen infant mortality firsthand they paint all pregnant women with the same brush.

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