Why Transparency in Maternity Care Matters:
A Fact Sheet for Birth Advocates
What is Transparency?
A pregnant woman asks her care provider, “What is your episiotomy rate?” Her doctor responds, “I only do them when it is necessary.” On her tour of the hospital maternity center, another woman asks about the hospital’s cesarean rate and is told, “We take care of many high risk patients, so you can’t compare our cesarean section rate with the hospital across town.”
What are the consequences when women can’t objectively evaluate the quality of their maternity care options? How do we help women make sense of intervention rates? How can women make fair comparisons?
Transparency means providing health care consumers with the information they need – and the means to interpret it – in order to evaluate the quality of care provided by individual providers and institutions. Transparency is the missing ingredient to truly informed choice.
Are Intervention Rates Important Quality Measures?
A growing body of research shows that among the most important factors influencing a woman’s risk of obstetric interventions, especially cesarean surgery and episiotomy, are where and with whom she gives birth. A recent study of over 41,000 low-risk women having their first babies in 20 California hospitals found cesarean rates for this population ranging from 11% - 30%. Statistical analysis revealed that obstetric practices – not clinical or demographic factors – accounted for over half of the variation across hospitals (1). Two studies conducted in Washington State found that the individual physician was an independent risk factor for cesarean section in both induced and spontaneous labors (2, 3). Several studies have shown that episiotomy is more common in private obstetric practices versus public or university-affiliated practices (4-6). Rates varied from 6% to 60%, but at least one university hospital maintains an episiotomy rate of 1% (7).
Excess use of obstetric interventions, in turn, increases the likelihood that the woman or her baby will be injured, experience complications such as infection, suffer pain, or have negative birth experiences (8). So, in short, a woman who goes to a provider or hospital with a high cesarean section rate is more likely to end up with cesarean surgery – and to suffer its potential consequences. If she goes to a provider with a high episiotomy rate, she is more likely to have an episiotomy – and to suffer its potential consequences. And so on… However, in most states, maternity care providers and facilities are not required by law to publicly report intervention rates or other outcome indicators, nor to help the public interpret data that are available.
Women can not make informed choices about their maternity care if they do not have access to the information that is most likely to influence their outcomes. They can not decrease their exposure to injury from injudicious use of interventions without knowing where and with whom intervention rates are too high. Without transparency, our health care system gives women a false sense of choice.
Can Transparency Improve the Quality of Maternity Care?
Yes! While most of the research on transparency and public reporting relates to other areas of health care, a few studies have looked at maternity care in particular and have found that public reporting of intervention rates and outcomes, whether alone or in combination with other quality improvement programs, translates into better care (9-11). In fact, an experiment conducted in Wisconsin suggests that the quality of obstetric care improves more in response to public reporting than other medical or surgical specialties (9). This may have been because there was more “room for improvement” in maternity care – more hospitals had low scores on obstetric indicators than on cardiac or surgical indicators. In the same study, hospitals included in a public report were more likely than those that were not to undertake quality improvement efforts. These efforts appeared to be effective – maternity units that improved their quality scores were more likely than those that stayed the same or did worse to have begun quality improvement efforts shortly after the public report was released. In other words, public reporting prompted hospitals to work to improve the areas where they scored poorly, and these efforts were effective at improving the quality of care.
Apples and Oranges: How Do We Make Fair Comparisons?
The question of which indicators to measure and how these should be reported complicate efforts to ensure transparency in maternity care. This is particularly problematic when it comes to interpreting cesarean section rates. The overall cesarean section rate (number of cesareans divided by the number of all births) may not be comparable across settings because some hospitals take care of many high risk women while others take care of low-risk women. The rate of cesarean section in high risk women may be higher for good reason. The same is true at the provider level; some providers, including many midwives, specialize in the care of low-risk women while others care for a mixed-risk population or specialize in high risk pregnancies. Similarly, factors such as parity (whether the woman has previously given birth) and age may naturally affect rates of obstetric interventions as well as outcomes.
Healthy People 2010, the federal program that sets goals for various health indicators, measures the cesarean section rate in nulliparous women (those having their first babies), with term (>37 weeks), singleton (one baby), vertex (head down) pregnancies (12). This is abbreviated as the “NTSV cesarean rate” and is used as a proxy for the cesarean section rate in low-risk first time mothers. It has been shown to be highly sensitive to variations in obstetric practices (1), so quality improvement programs should therefore be effective at safely lowering the NTSV cesarean rate. It is also a good measure because, if we can safely prevent the first cesarean, we can prevent repeat cesareans, as well as poor pregnancy outcomes resulting from accumulating many cesarean scars, such as placenta previa, preterm birth, and placenta accreta. As advocates for improvements in maternity care, we should recognize the NTSV cesarean rate as an effective quality indicator, and should educate the public to ask for and know how to interpret NTSV cesarean rates.
However, perfect indicators that can be compared easily across birth settings and providers will not be available in every community. Even when they are, the total rates of cesarean section, episiotomy, and other interventions are important quality measures. In the case of cesarean surgery, many studies have shown that rates can safely be less than 15% in mixed-risk populations, including those where considerable proportions of women have medical problems or are at risk because of poverty, age, or other factors (8, 13, 14). So, while the likelihood of requiring a cesarean will vary with individual circumstances, women with care providers whose rates are 15% or less can trust the their practitioner’s judgment should they recommend a cesarean in their case.
How Can Birth Advocates Promote Transparency?
Ensuring transparency in maternity care will require a major shift from the status quo, with buy-in and participation from hospitals, care providers, insurance companies, government, and consumers. As advocates for mother-friendly maternity care, we can help influence transparency efforts in our communities. In some areas, transparency initiatives are well underway and mother-friendly birth advocates can work to help consumers access and make sense of publicly available information. In communities where there is resistance to transparency, advocates can work to influence legislative efforts, create consumer demand for transparency, or work with the media, hospital administrators, local opinion leaders, or others to promote change. By maintaining a focus on quality improvement and safety rather than penalizing providers or facilities, transparency advocates are likely to gain greater acceptance and involvement from key stakeholders.
1. Main, E. K., Moore, D., Farrell, B., Schimmel, L. D., Altman, R. J., Abrahams, C., et al. (2006). Is there a useful cesarean birth measure? Assessment of the nulliparous term singleton vertex cesarean birth rate as a tool for obstetric quality improvement. American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology, 194(6), 1644-51.
2. Luthy, D. A., Malmgren, J. A., & Zingheim, R. W. (2004). Cesarean delivery after elective induction in nulliparous women: The physician effect. American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology, 191(5), 1511-1515.
3. Luthy, D. A., Malmgren, J. A., Zingheim, R. W., & Leininger, C. J. (2003). Physician contribution to a cesarean delivery risk model. American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology, 188(6), 1579-85; discussion 1585-7.
4. Goode, K. T., Weiss, P. M., Koller, C., Kimmel, S., & Hess, L. W. (2006). Episiotomy rates in private vs. resident service deliveries: A comparison. The Journal of Reproductive Medicine, 51(3), 190-192.
5. Howden, N. L., Weber, A. M., & Meyn, L. A. (2004). Episiotomy use among residents and faculty compared with private practitioners. Obstetrics and Gynecology, 103(1), 114-118.
6. Robinson, J. N., Norwitz, E. R., Cohen, A. P., & Lieberman, E. (2000). Predictors of episiotomy use at first spontaneous vaginal delivery. Obstetrics and Gynecology, 96(2), 214-218.
7. Albers, L. L., Sedler, K. D., Bedrick, E. J., Teaf, D., & Peralta, P. (2005). Midwifery care measures in the second stage of labor and reduction of genital tract trauma at birth: A randomized trial. Journal of Midwifery & Women's Health, 50(5), 365-372.
8. Goer, H., Leslie, M. S., & Romano, A. (2007). The evidence basis for the 10 steps of mother-friendly care: Step 6: Does not routinely employ practices, procedures unsupported by the scientific evidence. The Journal of Perinatal Education, 16(1 Suppl), 32-64.
9. Hibbard, J. H., Stockard, J., & Tusler, M. (2005). Hospital performance reports: Impact on quality, market share, and reputation. Health Affairs, 24(4), 1150-1160.
10. Hibbard, J. H., Stockard, J., & Tusler, M. (2005). It isn't just about choice: The potential of a public performance report to affect the public image of hospitals. Medical Care Research and Review, 62(3), 358-371.
11. Wirtschafter, D. D., Danielsen, B. H., Main, E. K., Korst, L. M., Gregory, K. D., Wertz, A., et al. (2006). Promoting antenatal steroid use for fetal maturation: Results from the California perinatal quality care collaborative. The Journal of Pediatrics, 148(5), 606-612.
12. Healthy People 2010. (2000). Objective 16-9. reduce cesarean births among low-risk (full term, singleton, vertex presentation) women. Retrieved 7/16/2007, from http://healthypeople.gov/document/html/objectives/16-09.htm
13. Haire, D. B., & Elsberry, C. C. (1991). Maternity care and outcomes in a high-risk service: The north central Bronx hospital experience. Birth, 18(1), 33-37.
14. Leeman, L., & Leeman, R. (2002). Do all hospitals need cesarean delivery capability? An outcomes study of maternity care in a rural hospital without on-site cesarean capability. The Journal of Family Practice, 51(2), 129-134.