Are we using the right metrics to measure cesarean rates?

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Do our patients really benefit when these statistics are used to evaluate performance?



St. Joseph Hospital in Orange, California, like most institutions performing deliveries in 2016, started releasing metrics internally before subsequently releasing them to the public. Data for the first 9 months of 2016 were released. As I am often an outlier, I was gratified to see that I ranked 1st in the vaginal birth after cesarean delivery (VBAC) rate at 36.8% and 4th at 15.9% for my cesarean delivery (CD) rate in the low-risk nulliparous term singleton vertex (NTSV) population.

I have been an avid proponent of VBAC since 1984 when one of the fathers of modern obstetric care, Edward J. Quilligan, MD, presented the benefits and safety of VBAC at our institution.

Experiences that may alter a reported rate

I list here a few circumstances of a CD on maternal request:

  • A primagravida with a 10-cm nonphysiologic, nonmalignant ovarian cyst at term elects a primary CD with ovarian cystectomy.
  • A woman who is concerned about pelvic organ prolapse and urinary incontinence later in life requests a CD. After all, normal babies do not weigh 5 and 6 lb anymore.
  • An elderly primagravida with an in vitro fertilization pregnancy requests a CD.

Should these experiences adversely affect a physician’s statistics? Personally, I don’t think so. Is the morbidity and mortality from a CD really all that much higher than a normal spontaneous vaginal delivery (NSVD)? Granted, the cost is more. But are we really helping all our patients by insisting on a NSVD? Thousands of people have medically indicated and elective surgery in the United States each day.

Of course, these data points depend on the denominator (the number of deliveries attributed to each ObGyn). Those with a contradictory opinion will say that this evens out over time. I dispute that claim. This might be closer to being true for the ObGyn with the highest number, say, 134 in the NTSV denominator versus someone with a low number, such as 4. For VBAC, the denominator range at our institution was 1 to 115 cases.

Rethinking my position

Two recent cases have caused me to rethink my position on using VBAC and CD rates to evaluate ObGyns.

Uterine rupture

A 31-year-old G3P1 woman at 39 6/7 weeks’ gestation was admitted in early labor for a VBAC. She had undergone a CD with her first baby because of fetal intolerance to labor. Her prenatal course was complicated by white-coat hypertension, but I monitored her blood pressure at home and it had been normal. She took aspirin 81 mg during the pregnancy. The fetus was not reactive to a nonstress test on the day of admission.

That evening, amniotomy results showed clear fluid. I placed an intrauterine pressure catheter. The patient’s labor progressed well during the night, she received an epidural anesthetic, and labor was augmented with intravenous oxytocin. She progressed to complete dilation. I was notified of severe, prolonged, variable fetal heart-rate decelerations.

The Laborist who evaluated the patient recommended an emergency CD. I came immediately to Labor and Delivery and performed a CD with delivery of a 7 lb 4 oz infant whose Apgars were 2, 5, and 8 at 1, 5, and 10 minutes, respectively. Arterial cord blood gas tests revealed: pH, 6.94; pCO2, 95 mm Hg; pO2, 19.9 mm Hg; HCO3, 19.9 mmol/L; and base excess (BE), –14.4 mmol/L. Venous cord blood gas tests revealed: pH, 7.25; pCO2, 45 mm Hg; pO2, 35 mm Hg; HCO3, 19.2 mmol/L; BE, −8.0 mmol/L. The cord blood gases revealed that the baby was becoming compromised, but was delivered in time to avoid complications.

After advocating and performing many successful VBACs for 33 years, this was my first uterine rupture.

The uterus had ruptured in the lower segment from the mid-portion extending inferolaterally on the right side and was hemorrhaging. I successfully repaired the rupture. Maternal quantitative blood loss was 1,020 mL.

The baby initially was apneic and was limp. He required continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) and positive pressure ventilation in the operating room. The baby was transferred to the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU), recovered well, and was discharged home with the mother on the 4th day of life.

Commentary: Why should this necessary, emergency CD count against me on my core measure rate? Although I have advocated for VBACs for 33 years, perhaps they aren’t so safe. After this experience, I do not ever want to have to deal with a ruptured uterus, a compromised baby, and maternal hemorrhage again.

Read Dr. Kanofsky’s solution to using this metric.

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