CASE Low-risk maternity patient wants fewer prenatal visits
A recently pregnant patient asks her obstetrician if she can schedule fewer prenatal visits given that she is at low risk, wants to minimize missing work, and lives an hour away from the clinic office. Her physician tells her that she needs the standard 13 to 15 visits to have a healthy pregnancy.
Obstetric care in the United States largely remains a “one-size fits all” approach despite compelling data that fewer visits for low-risk women are medically acceptable and may be more cost-effective.
Prenatal care: One size does not fit all
With nearly 4 million births annually in the United States, prenatal care is one of the most widely used preventive health care strategies.1,2 The ideal method for providing prenatal care, however, remains controversial. At the inception of early 20th century prenatal care in the United States, preventive strategies focused in part on eclampsia-related maternal morbidity and mortality, which in turn informed the content and frequency of prenatal visits.2 Despite the dramatic changes in medical practice over the last 100 years, the basic timing and quantity of prenatal care has not changed substantively.
The lack of change is not because we have not explored other models of prenatal care and sought to introduce evidence-based change. Several studies have assessed the impact of reduced prenatal care visits for low-risk women.3-7 Systematic reviews evaluated 7 randomized trials, with more than 60,000 women enrolled, of prenatal care models with a reduced number of planned antenatal visits (4 to 9 visits vs the traditional 13 to 15 visits).3,8 There were no demonstrable differences in maternal or perinatal morbidity or mortality, particularly in higher resource settings.
Despite strong safety data and the potential cost-effectiveness of a reduced schedule of prenatal visits, US prenatal care practices generally continue to have a one-size-fits-all approach. Several organizations, however, have called for a change in practice.
Endorsing a reduced number of prenatal visits for low-risk women, the US Department of Health and Human Services Expert Panel on Prenatal Care issued a report in 1989 that stated “the specific content and timing of prenatal visits, contacts, and education should vary depending on the risk status of the pregnant woman and her fetus.”9 Consistent with that recommendation, the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) jointly published guidelines that recommend a system of goal-oriented antenatal visits at specific gestational ages and that support a reduced schedule of prenatal visits, compared with traditional models, for low-risk, parous women.10 The World Health Organization also published recommendations for an 8 “contact” prenatal care system to reduce perinatal mortality and improve women’s prenatal experience.11
Is obstetric dogma the reason for lack of change?
Concerns about patient satisfaction may play a role in limiting the use of a reduced prenatal care visit model. In trials that evaluated a model of reduced prenatal care visits, women were less satisfied with a reduced visit schedule and the gap between provider contacts.3,8 Anecdotally, providers have expressed concerns about perceived liability. Most compelling, perhaps, is the idea that the traditional prenatal schedule has become obstetric dogma.
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