Tuesday, August 28, 2012

If this is cost-cutting, just be honest, please


Now here’s an odd bit of news. Britain’s Royal College of Gynecologists (RCOG)—in one of those partnerships that make you go “Huh?”—has teamed up with the National Childbirth Trust (NCT) and the Royal College of Midwives (RCM) to issue "Making sense of commissioning Maternity Services in England – some issues for Clinical Commissioning Groups to consider," a set of guidelines on maternity services to British general practitioners.

British GPs (who are rather like family doctors) are often the first point of contact for pregnant British women and have considerable impact on their choices, so this is important stuff. The guidelines give GPs pointers on how to assist pregnant women, on which sort of birth units they should advise patients to go to, and what sort of questions they should ask of their local hospitals/birth units to make sure they are fit to be recommended.

Much of the guidelines covers matters such as ensuring pregnant women receive medical care early on, looking out for socially vulnerable women etc.—all great stuff and very welcome. But then things get surprising. Credit goes to Pauline Hull of Cesarean Debate who spotted the oddities in the guidelines and posted her own very thorough riposte which can be read in full here. Although the guidelines spend a lot of time talking about “choices,” they do nevertheless seem to be awfully keen that women make the choices that the NCT and RCM consider correct. They encourage GPs to push women towards midwife-led birth units, saying (for example) “There is now a good argument to be made for multiparous women being advised to choose a non-obstetric birth unit” (my emphasis). Most curiously of all, the guidelines also advise GPs that “a 20% rate [of cesarean section] is achievable and sustainable. Every provider unit should have a clear action plan for increasing its normal birth rate…”

I don't want to just repeat everything Hull has already said, so I'd like to focus on the bit about "increasing [the] normal birth rate." On the face of it, that doesn’t sound too scary—after all, nobody would want a woman to have an abnormal birth, surely… who could possibly object to increasing normal birth rates? Well, quite a lot of people, actually. The guidelines define “normal birth” as “without induction, without the use of instruments, not be caesarean section and without general spinal or epidural anesthetic before or during delivery.” The guidelines also advocate raising the vaginal delivery rate, which includes forceps and vacuum. Put this another way—“Every provider unit should have a clear action plan for decreasing its epidural rate, and—if necessary—resorting to more forceps and vacuum deliveries in order to get the cesarean rate down” —and suddenly it all sounds a bit less cozy.

The problem with targets (or, what if you like being abnormal?)
The problem with these kinds of targets is that in practice, they always end up reducing choice and harrying at least some women into birth experiences that they don’t want, simply because of the way target-driven healthcare tends to work—as pointed out by numerous posters on the popular online discussion forum, Mumsnet, where there has been for the most part a pretty angry reaction to these guidelines. In hospitals where VBAC/“normal” birth rates are below target and cesarean sections make up more than 20% of births (i.e. more-or-less all hospitals) medical practitioners are sure to start feeling the hot breath of their organizational managers down the backs of their collars, urging them to “see if they can’t get those rates down a bit,” which in turn will inevitably lead to women who prefer cesarean section being pressured, nagged or tricked into birth styles they don’t want—unwanted VBACs and forceps/vacuum deliveries especially. I’m a strong supporter of the continued availability of VBACs and forceps on delivery wards, as I discussed here—but I wouldn’t want either myself, and I don’t think women should be pressured into them or not given full and unbiased information on their risks, as well as on those of cesarean section. I’m particularly concerned about epidural coverage, because there is convincing evidence that British women are already being subjected to the Great Epidural Bait-And-Switch.

The problem is—and the guidelines themselves sort of admit this, funnily enough, if you read them through—British women are waiting until later and later in life to have their first child; they are heavier than ever at conception; they are gaining more weight during pregnancy and having bigger babies. My concern is that if this reality collides with political pressure to "get those cesarean rates down," we will inevitably see more and more “bad vaginal births”—more long and traumatically painful labors, deep instrumental deliveries, injuries to babies and serious pelvic floor trauma. No wonder Maureen Treadwell of the Birth Trauma Association has expressed her concern about these guidelines.

Strange bedfellows
As Hull says, the Royal College of Gynecologists teaming up with the NCT and RCM is…well… surprising. The NCT is a rather crunchy mothers’ association; and while the RCM is generally respected for its role turning out the National Health Service (NHS)’s own highly-trained midwives it is still heavily biased towards natural—sorry, “normal”— birth. In addition to its Campaign for Normal Birth—see, that word again—the RCM back in 2006 also (as Hull mentions) floated the idea of charging women 500 pounds for “unnecessary epidurals,” but backed down when faced with popular outrage.

But if I thought the RCM and NCT were strange bedfellows for the RCOG, my jaw dropped when I saw page 2 of the 2006 Making Normal Birth A Reality produced the Maternity Care Working Party and included on the RCOG website; “Members supporting the consensus statement” alongside the RCOG include the Independent Midwives Association and the Association of Radical Midwives (do check out the latter’s Facebook page; it makes interesting reading, especially the approving links to Birth Without Fear posts like the one on a "Home Birth of Twins Born Past 41 Weeks, One Footling Breech"?). You do have to ask, what the hell is the RCOG playing at?

Cost-cutting with added crunch
Now, there’s little doubt why the NCT and RCM like the idea of pushing women away from epidurals and c-sections—but it would appear that they’ve thought carefully about how to sell this idea to the NHS:
“Between 2001 and 2010 the national birth rate has increased by 22%... The cost… is set to rise… Commissioners… will need to work in close collaboration with their local maternity providers to ensure that services are both clinically and cost effective.”
The guidelines helpfully remind us that “Every potential cesarean section that is enabled to be a normal birth saves 1,200 pounds in tariff price alone.” Okay, now we're getting down to brass tacks.

In recent years we have seen a lot of initiatives springing up all over the world which dovetail  with earthy-birthy views of how we “should” mother, and which—by a delightful coincidence!—just happen to be marvelous little money-savers as well. There’s the Kick women out of hospital as soon as possible early discharge system which has become popular in places like Australia, and which is great for freeing up beds ensuring mothers and babies can enjoy special bonding time away from the dehumanizing atmosphere of the hospital  (see here and here... ah, and I see the phrase "normalise childbirth" yet again in that last link...). There’s the Baby Friendly Hospital Initiative (BFHI), which has resulted in the compulsory rooming-in policies now found in most Irish hospitals, for example—nice for the hospitals who no longer have to pay for well-baby nurseries or the staff needed for them… let mum do all the work, day and night (if you want to know how the Irish mothers themselves feel about the system, see here).

When I first heard about the BFHI, I remember thinking “So… where’s this going to end? Is the next thing going to be targets for reducing epidural take-up too?” Turns out that wasn’t such a far-fetched idea.

Just be honest, please
If you want to cut costs without howls of protest, there is no better way to do it than to do it in the name of “baby-friendliness,” “normal birth” and so on. It’s clever, really. Anxiety about being a “good” mother and a “real” woman is the 21st century woman’s Achilles’ heel. A woman can’t criticize initiatives which purport to be based on “baby-friendliness” and “normal birth” without leaving herself vulnerable to accusations that she is an abnormal mother who believes in being unfriendly to babies and probably punches kittens and puppies as a hobby in her spare time.

In an age of austerity and rising healthcare costs, governments of nationalized healthcare systems everywhere are looking for ways to limit or ration healthcare services. And you know what? That’s okay. No, honestly, it really is. No healthcare system—especially one funded by taxpayers—can pay for everything for everybody all the time, and sometimes tough choices have to be made. It’s fine to have discussions about whether free formula or cesarean delivery by maternal request (CDMR) or homebirth or whatever is something which taxpayers can’t afford to fund any more when there are other pressing demands on NHS money.

But if we are going to debate cost-cutting, can we please make the debate about cost-cutting, dammit, and not cloak it in sweetly-honeyed words like “natural,” “baby-friendly” and (for the love of God) “normal.” If someone thinks the NHS can’t pay for well-baby nurseries or epidurals, fine—they’re entitled to their opinion; but please just say so frankly. Because then we can all sit down and have an honest debate about where cuts should be made. When a plan to reduce epidural availability or kick women out of hospital early is put in terms of “Oh, but we’re doing this for the babies’ good!” this effectively silences women and shuts down open debate. And that’s just not good for babies, for mothers or for the NHS.

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