Monday, March 12, 2012

safer and better systems of care

with my first baby 1973
Recently I have spent considerable time reflecting upon and writing about situations in which midwives face complaints of serious professional misconduct after attending home births.

See articles at the MiPP blog

Many of the complaints (notifications) that I am aware of relate to situations in which midwives attend women who have specific risk features of their pregnancy, such as having had caesarean surgery, or being classified as 'post mature', or having a breech birth or twins, for birth at home.

I do not want to seem to be guiding midwives to encourage 'at risk' women to see home birth as their only option. In my experience, a woman with twins, or breech presentation, or birth after caesarean, who is clear that she intends to hold onto 'Plan A' unless a valid reason is given for intervention whether she is at home or goes to hospital (with her midwife) to give birth; this woman will make an informed decision that she believes is in the best interests of her baby, her family, and her own wellbeing. This woman is enabled to take responsibility for her family's social, emotional, and physical health in a new way, in a special partnership with her midwife.

My personal approach to twins and breech births, after appropriate discussion and consultation, is to try to arrange support for a physiologically normal, unmanaged birth in a public hospital that has capacity for emergency obstetric intervention, if the woman believes that is the best way at the time of labour.

 This is not a simple task. It opens the door to a clash of opinion - medical vs social - in each situation. I wrote about that a few years ago - "Why bother coming here if you won't let us manage you the way we think is best?" - when a mother with twins near term followed my advice, and presented at the antenatal clinic of a large public hospital. She was told she had no option other than elective (scheduled) caesarean. The first baby was presenting breech. It's probably no surprise to readers that that mother rejected the advice of the big, well-equipped and well-staffed, public maternity hospital. We were able to engage the services of a smaller suburban public maternity hospital, and the babies were born one morning without incident, and the family returned home that afternoon - see Drive through birthing.

Another mother in my care gave birth to her twins at home. It was only after the first baby had been born, and the mother told me she was having contractions again that she placed her hand on her belly and said to me "Joy there's a lump here. Could it be another baby?" Yes, it could, and it was. By the time I had changed my gloves the second baby was ready to be born - beautifully!

Another mother in my care gave birth to her twins in hospital. The labour was powerful; mother knelt on the bed, and the first baby slipped out into my hands, cried, and went into mother's welcoming arms. The cord was clamped and cut to prevent any twin-to-twin transfusion. The mother's contractions returned quickly and intensely, and she maintained her crouched position, and passed the first baby to his dad. With the next contraction the second baby was born, about 6 minutes after his brother, with the placenta. The placenta had separated from the uterus (abbrupted) after the first birth and the second twin's life was immediately in danger as he had no oxygen supply. He needed to be born quickly, and he was. He revived spontaneously, without difficulty.

In telling this story, I am highlighting a situation in which the urgency for birth can be escalated in an instant, and specific action needed to protect, in this instance, a baby's life. After the birth of the first baby it is usual for the midwife or doctor to palpate the mother's abdomen to check the position of the second twin, and listen to the heart beat of the second twin. The mother, in this instance, refused to go onto her back, and proceeded very quickly, under natural intuitive knowing, to 'eject' the second twin. Had she been a compliant 'patient', and done as asked, and I believe it is possible that her baby's birth may have been delayed, with obvious negative consequences.

On the other hand, had there been no internal pressure to get that baby born, we would possibly have heard the slowing heart rate as the baby's oxygen supply quickly depleted, and an obstetric intervention to extract the baby would have been attempted. It's not helpful to speculate or ask 'what would have happened if?'. In this case the mother's decision to refuse a managed birth, which would have included epidural, was probably the factor that saved her baby's life, because she was able to do the job spontaneously.

I am very distressed when women with twin pregnancies, or babies presenting breech, and their midwives, are so unable to trust hospital care that they see home as the only option. Home or hospital, spontaneous, managed, or surgical, there are no guarantees. The mother's choice of home or hospital for the birth of her babies is her choice, and she will face different challenges with each pathway.

“... We must stop blaming individuals and put much greater effort into making our systems of care safer and better” (ACSQHC National Action Plan, 2001). 

The National Midwifery Guidelines for Consultation and Referral (ACM 2008) (the Guidelines) categorise women with twins and breeches as being ‘C’ (transfer). It is important to understand the place of the Guidelines in contemporary midwifery, and why after appropriate consultation, a woman and her midwife may chose to continue with the plan for homebirth.

The Guidelines were designed primarily for use across mainstream maternity services, outlining a risk management process by which midwives could act either autonomously, or in professional consultation with other maternity care providers, or by initiating transfer of care to a more appropriate maternity service. The Guidelines do not deal with situations in which women make an informed decision to seek out private midwifery services for home birth. The Guidelines do not deal with situations in which women choose care which is outside that which is recommended by the Guidelines, or by individual maternity care providers.

The Guidelines, in the preamble, indicate the purpose of these Guidelines, to address a significant gap that existed prior to their development, in helping “maternity services to meet national policy priorities aimed at improving the quality and safety of health care. When the Australian Council for Safety and Quality in Health Care launched its National Action Plan in 2001, its Chair Professor Bruce Barraclough argued that improving the safety and quality of patient care is one of the most important challenges facing health professionals: “... We must stop blaming individuals and put much greater effort into making our systems of care safer and better” (p 5) (emphasis added)

Systems of care that are safer and better than whatever Professor Barraclough referred to, and that are better than the system that told a mother "Why bother coming here if you won't let us manage you the way we think is best?", are systems that accept different levels of decision-making by different people.  A mother who values the spontaneous work of her own body in giving birth, unmedicated, to her babies, is a mother who the system needs to respect, and work hard to accommodate.

Systems of care that are safe and good for women and their babies will accept, at every level - not just the so-called 'low-risk' birth - that “Childbirth is a social and emotional event and is an essential part of family life. The care given should take into consideration the individual woman’s cultural and social needs." ICM Position Statement on Home Birth.

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