Our Patients Deserve Our Patience

Recent reports of rising cesarean delivery rates in the United States are a significant concern, both to the public and to those of us who are practicing obstetrics. Cesarean delivery rates vary dramatically across geographic areas of the country but also from one neighboring hospital to the next.

Certainly the variations in cesarean delivery rates are multi-factorial. It is easy to understand if a tertiary care hospital receiving high-risk pregnancies from a broad referral area would have an elevated cesarean delivery rate. However, it is disturbing to see that some hospitals with a high percentage of low-risk deliveries have higher cesarean delivery rates than the tertiary care hospitals in their referral area.

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With Delivery Times, Defer to Mother Nature

“Let nature take its course.” Over the years, I’ve found this saying particularly applies to the process of giving birth. My personal experience as an ob-gyn and reams of scientific research demonstrate that Mother Nature knows best when a child is ready to be born. The start of natural labor is the main sign, but we’re not always patient enough to wait for it.

Today, one in three babies in the US are born by cesarean—the delivery of a baby through an incision in the mother’s abdomen and uterus. The rate of labor induction is also at an all-time high. Unfortunately, many of these births occur before the pregnancy is considered “term” at 39 weeks. These upward trends have long been a source of concern in the medical community, especially considering the increased risks to a baby who may not be fully developed at delivery.

Among cesarean deliveries, an estimated 2.5% (more than 100,000 births each year) are scheduled on a designated date by the mother and her doctor. Some women cite reasons such as a lower risk of future incontinence, better sexual functioning after childbirth, and fear of pain as motivations to schedule cesareans. Inevitably, some cesareans (and labor inductions, too) are scheduled before a pregnancy is full term, increasing the risk of negative outcomes for the newborn, including respiratory problems and time spent in the neonatal intensive care unit. The fact remains that due dates are estimates, and you can never be sure that the infant will have reached optimal maturity at the time of a scheduled delivery.

Women should keep in mind that cesarean delivery is no walk in the park. While it’s a safe option, cesarean delivery is a major surgery and comes with a number of risks, such as placental complications in future pregnancies, problems with anesthesia, infection, and longer recovery times.

Certain urgent situations—such as preeclampsia, eclampsia, multiple fetuses, fetal growth restriction, and poorly controlled diabetes—may make it necessary to deliver the baby before the onset of natural labor. However, newly issued guidelines from ACOG remind women and ob-gyns that in uncomplicated pregnancies, a vaginal birth that occurs after the natural onset of labor is ideal. Additional new ACOG guidelines reaffirm that cesareans and labor inductions should only be performed when medically-necessary.

Delaying delivery until labor starts naturally may not make ob-gyns too popular with a patient who’s uncomfortable and near the end of her pregnancy, but it’s a decision that will pay dividends by giving the baby the extra time it needs to face the world.

With Routine Medical Tests and Procedures, Choose Wisely

Hal C. Lawrence III, MD, ACOG Vice President, speaking during the press briefing.

Hal C. Lawrence III, MD, ACOG Executive Vice President, speaking during the press briefing.

Open lines of communication are the basis of successful doctor-patient interactions. However, when it comes to medical tests and procedures, doctors and patients alike can easily slide into cruise control without taking the time to discuss what’s truly needed, appropriate, supported by evidence-based research, and in the best interest of the patient’s care.

With this in mind, ACOG has teamed up with the Choosing Wisely campaign—an initiative that aims to spark a conversation about commonly performed tests and exams in different areas of medicine. By taking a critical eye to routine health care practices, we can make better decisions on how to provide thorough and comprehensive care while avoiding unnecessary, redundant, or even risk-increasing procedures.

Today, at a joint press conference with 16 other partnering organizations, ACOG made the following recommendations:

1. Don’t schedule elective, non-medically indicated inductions of labor or cesarean deliveries before 39 weeks 0 days gestational age.
Delivery prior to 39 weeks 0 days has been shown to be associated with an increased risk of learning disabilities and a potential increase in morbidity and mortality. There are clear medical indications for delivery prior to 39 weeks 0 days based on maternal and/or fetal conditions. A mature fetal lung test, in the absence of appropriate clinical criteria, is not an indication for delivery.

2. Don’t schedule elective, non-medically indicated inductions of labor between 39 weeks 0 days and 41 weeks 0 days unless the cervix is deemed favorable.
Ideally, labor should start on its own initiative whenever possible. Higher cesarean delivery rates result from inductions of labor when the cervix is unfavorable. Health care practitioners should discuss the risks and benefits with their patients before considering inductions of labor without medical indications.

3. Don’t perform routine annual cervical cytology screening (Pap tests) in women 30–65 years of age.
In average–risk women, annual cervical cytology screening has been shown to offer no advantage over screening performed at 3-year intervals. However, a well-woman visit should occur annually for patients with their health care practitioner to discuss concerns and problems and to have appropriate screening with consideration of a pelvic examination.

4. Don’t treat patients who have mild dysplasia of less than two years in duration.
Mild dysplasia (Cervical Intraepithelial Neoplasia [CIN 1]) is associated with the presence of the human papillomavirus (HPV), which does not require treatment in average–risk women. Most women with CIN 1 on biopsy have a transient HPV infection that will usually clear in less than 12 months and, therefore, does not require treatment.

5. Don’t screen for ovarian cancer in asymptomatic women at average risk.
In population studies, there is only fair evidence that screening of asymptomatic women with serum CA-125 level and/or transvaginal ultrasound can detect ovarian cancer at an earlier stage than can be detected in the absence of screening. Because of the low prevalence of ovarian cancer and the invasive nature of the interventions required after a positive screening test, the potential harms of screening outweigh the potential benefits.

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Drop in Cesareans, Teen Births, Premature Babies Welcome News

The CDC recently released preliminary 2010 data on births in the US and there’s good news. For starters, preterm births declined for the fourth straight year. Although the rate is still high, it’s clear that progress is being made in preventing premature births.

The other good news is that the cesarean delivery rate also decreased. I’d like to believe that ACOG’s concerted efforts to educate physicians and the public that there are increased risks associated with cesarean birth, as well as our efforts to encourage vaginal birth after cesarean (VBAC), has something to do with this. We’ve also educated doctors and patients about not inducing labor or scheduling a cesarean before 39 weeks of pregnancy without a pressing medical need to do so. A full term pregnancy is 40 weeks and babies need these last few weeks to gain weight and fully develop lung function.

Births to teens fell again for the third straight year, hitting a record low. Fewer teens are having sex and more of them are using contraception when they do.

This new data is encouraging, but we must keep the momentum up on driving these rates down further and in the process, improving maternal and infant health outcomes.