Obstetrical care in crisis


For the last 25 years I have had the privilege of caring for a rural community, practicing full-scope family medicine including obstetrics with cesarean sections. I have had a deeply rewarding career, and delivering babies and watching them grow up has been one of the most gratifying parts of my work.

Dr. John Cullen practices the full scope of family medicine, including providing care to infants. Sheri Porter/AAFP News

Dr. John Cullen treats an infant.

My concern is that, as the number of family physicians who practice maternity care has decreased, the infant and maternal mortality rate in the United States has increased, especially in rural and minority populations. Currently, 5 million women of reproductive age have no access to maternity care.

At the same time 23% of incoming family medicine residents would like to offer maternity care and are trained to do so, but few are able to find a job where this is possible.1 This is unfortunate because family physicians have the training and expertise to provide comprehensive maternity care. Although they have lower rates of cesarean section than ob-gyns, with similar outcomes, family physicians do have surgical skills, including providing cesarean sections, that are often necessary for safe delivery.2,3

In addition, family physicians have the internal medicine and behavioral health background to care for postpartum complications, as well as substance use disorders. Because they also care for children, they see postpartum women when they come in with their children for well-child checks. These visits offer an excellent opportunity to also check on the mother for postpartum depression and other signs of postpartum illness.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data reveal that maternal mortality can be divided into three nearly equal parts: pregnancy, delivery, and post partum. They define delivery as the week of delivery. The 48 hours post delivery accounted for only 12% of overall mortality. This means that even if women travel to metropolitan areas, they are likely to be home when they have fatal complications. The lack of trained and experienced physicians in the communities where women live increases their risks should they have complications. Most maternal fatalities occur when conditions are not recognized in a timely fashion. Some responses require procedural skills such as dilation and curettage (D&C).

As a member of the National Advisory Committee on Rural Health and Human Services, I visited several states to evaluate their rural health systems. We looked at infant mortality by county and found an enormous disparity between counties, largely caused by lack of prenatal services and obstetrical services.

These disparities between counties are getting worse. The United States is losing critical access hospitals at a rapid pace. We have lost 117 critical access hospitals in the last 10 years, with 40 in the last year alone. According to the National Rural Health Association, 4,673 additional facilities – representing more than one-third of rural hospitals in the United States – are vulnerable and could close. The reasons are multiple, but the result has been an erosion of the rural safety net, especially with regard to maternity care.

These hospital closures force women to travel farther distances for maternity care, including cesarean sections, and this contributes to increased maternal and infant mortality.5 In a study from Canada, the complication rates increased substantially as distances increased. Women are more likely to have premature deliveries, deliver on the side of the road, or end up in inappropriate facilities.

The distance from delivery is directly related to outcomes. A study from the early 1990s showed that women did better if they received maternity care from local hospitals and physicians.6 From a family medicine perspective, this makes sense because traveling to a metropolitan area means isolation from family and social networks. Stress increases because pregnant women also are often the primary caregiver of other children and the primary wage earner of the family. Although we are unsure what impact stress has on pregnancy, we do know it does have an effect on greater risk of prematurity and poor outcomes.

Obstetricians provide excellent care, but they are not a panacea. Only half of U.S. counties have adequate ob.gyn. coverage. Moreover, in many of those counties, the ob.gyns. subspecialize in gynecologic surgery and infertility, but don’t provide obstetrical care. Another challenge: ob.gyns. cannot survive financially in smaller communities; our policies must include incentives to recruit and retain them in underserved areas.

Certified nurse midwives also provide excellent care and are an invaluable member of the patient-care team, but again, they cannot be the only solution. Obstetrical emergencies do occur, and mothers need a physician trained in providing on-site medical or surgical care. They also need a hospital with adequate staff to care for emergencies.

In communities large enough to support a multispecialty group, certified medical technicians, family physicians, and ob.gyns. would ideally work alongside each other. In small communities four family physicians can provide a high level of maternity care including surgical deliveries, while supporting themselves with caring for children and elders in clinics, hospitals, and EDs.

It is unconscionable that a country as wealthy as ours would accept rates of maternal and infant mortality that rival and are often worse than developing countries. Although the reasons are many, there is no excuse. Family physicians are an essential part of reversing this trend. We need policies that enable family physicians to help resolve the shortage of maternity care for underserved communities, to address the maternal and infant mortality rate, and to provide maternity care that is part of family medicine’s full scope of practice.

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