Thursday, July 18, 2013

transferring to hospital

I am reflecting on a few recent situations in which I have made the 'call' that we need to go to hospital.  In my mind there has been no doubt. 

It's fairly clear to me, that when a woman and baby are strong and well, home is ideal.

But ...

when the mother is not well, physically or emotionally, it's not good at home.  Even a mother who has no continuous support in her home - should she be left alone a mere 3 or 4 hours after the birth, when I pack up my gear and go home?

Midwives have a set of guidelines, published by our College (ACM), to set down systems for decision-making about consultation and referral (see previous post).  They do not actually address homebirth, but are a list of the conditions in which a midwife would expect to work collaboratively with an obstetrician or an obstetric unit in providing maternity care - meaning that the woman is in hospital for the birth and any other continuous acute care. 

The ACM Guidelines list hundreds of 'indications' for consultation (with) and referral (to) specialist obstetric or newborn or other medical services.

Rather than focus on 'indications' or medical/obstetric conditions, I prefer to turn the coin to the other side, and ask the questions:
"Is the mother well?",
"Is the baby well?"

If the answer to each is "yes", there is no reason to intervene prior to the onset of labour, so we wait for labour to establish spontaneously.  This is the only woman who, in my opinion, is fit to proceed with home birth. 

If the answer to either is "no", the hospital probably has real advantages.  Homebirth requires strength, and intentionality about wellness.

Many women who plan homebirth have serious concerns about what might happen in hospital.  They know about continuous monitoring in labour, and scheduled vaginal exams, and narcotic analgesia being offered at the time when they are vulnerable to suggestion.  They know about protocols for normal progress; about high rates of inductions and augmentations, and all-time high rates of caesarean births.  They know about babies's cords being cut, and babies being separated from their mothers. 


When I say to a woman, who has gone to considerable expense and trouble to plan homebirth, that I want her to go to hospital to give birth to her baby, I know that she may experience difficulties with the system.  Hospitals are not committed to protecting, promoting and supporting natural physiological processes in birthing.  Hospitals are concerned about patient/staff ratios, availability of emergency services, and a hundred and one issues that make hospitals relatively safe places for the majority of patients and staff and visitors.

Transferring care from planned homebirth with a humble midwife, to a hospital with 'teams' of midwives, nurses, and a heirachy of doctors from the new Resident to the obstetric Consultant, can be a daunting process.  I will recommend that transfer if I believe the woman's and her baby's needs are likely to be better served in hospital than at home.   The best is all that I want.

The person who owns the natural processes in birthing (and nurturing of the baby) is the mother.  She is the only one who can give permission for a staff member, or a privately employed midwife, to take her pulse, or listen to her baby's heart beat, or assess her cervical dilation and the station of her baby's presenting part.  The mother owns her body, regardless of where she is intending to give birth.

This ongoing process of decision-making is guided in my practice, not by a 84-page spiral bound guidance manual, but by the two simple questions:
"Is the mother well?",
"Is the baby well?"

Saturday, July 13, 2013

What should I say to the students?

Over the years I have spoken to each new intake of midwifery students at Deakin University in Burwood about the midwife in private practice.   I feel privileged to be invited to give this lecture.  I stand before a room full of fresh and eager young women (usually), who want to become midwives.

Yesterday I asked Martina, a young midwife who asked me to mentor her in homebirth and private practice, who had been in that same lecture room a few years ago, what she thought I should focus on.  She was quick to reply: "normal unmedicated birth, physiological third stage, leaving the cord un-clamped - these are basic midwifery, but students may rarely experience them as they complete the practical requirements of the course."  

Yes Martina, I think you are right.  This truly is basic midwifery.  Students may find that their courses emphasise so strongly the complications and illnesses that can devastate a woman in pregnancy and birth, yet undervalue the body of scientific and clinical knowledge around protecting spontaneous normal birth, breastfeeding, and mothering.  Teachers may take it for granted that students will learn how to be 'with woman' when the woman is strong and well and intentional about working with her own body's natural power in childbirth, while they prepare the students for obstetric emergencies, neonatal and maternal resuscitation, and other potentially life-saving measures.

Working in harmony with natural processes in birthing is indeed a wonderful thing.  Midwives sometimes refer to ourselves as 'oxytocin junkies', and anyone who has spent time repeatedly in the zone of healthy spontaneous birthing will know what I mean by that phrase.  We come away from birth with a renewed sense of awe and wonder each time, and we never exhaust its potential. 

Yet I need to balance that fact against the reality that a midwife's place in birth is not a passive one.  If there were no serious professional role for the midwife in a 'natural', spontaneous birth, it would be reasonable for women to be attended by their sisters, friends, or a sub-professional group of birth attendants.  A midwife attending planned homebirth is watching the woman's response to her body's intuitive work, watching the baby's response to the labour, and assessing progress over time.  While an inexperienced midwife might become frustrated when progress is poor, the seasoned midwife seeks an understanding, weighing up what she observes against her knowledge of normal. 

Midwives entering the profession today face a distinct set of challenges:

  • Basic midwifery
Mainstream maternity service providers in cities like Melbourne - the employers of the majority of midwives - are pretty good at dealing with the complicated aspects of birth.  They have educational and research arms that impress colleagues around the world.  But, in general, they do not do a good job at 'basic midwifery'.  There are few strategies that protect wellness.  The rates of various interventions, from induction of labour for non-medical reasons, to rates of caesarean, or rates of serious perineal trauma, or rates of admission of babies to neonatal intensive or special care nurseries - all performance indicators - could be improved. 

It is the job of midwives to insist on 'basic midwifery' improvements to the care of women.  We can't expect the obstetric services director - a medically trained specialist in surgery - to champion midwifery which is outside the scope of an obstetrician's expertise.  (Mind you, some obstetricians do understand, and champion, the work of the midwife) 

  • increasing medicalisation of life events
This challenge point is linked to the previous one.  Our society has, to a great extent, lost its knowledge of and trust in wellness.   There is a point at which additional medical interventions fail to improve outcomes, and possibly increase the risk of poor outcomes.  Midwives today carry knowledge of protecting and supporting spontaneous birthing processes.  We must value our knowledge and skill.

  • increasing bureaucratic red tape
Midwives have lobbied successive governments over many years for equity and fairness in access to public funding for midwifery services.  This challenge continues, even though we are now able to provide Medicare rebates for some midwifery services, and other extensions to practice such as requesting tests and investigations, and prescribing some medications.  There are many bureaucratic requirements attached to these new professional benefits, and only time will tell if we meet the expected standard.

Private midwifery practice in Australia today focuses on homebirth.  Homebirth offers midwives an opportunity to experience 'basic midwifery', because the only way to access the obstetric component of maternity care is to transfer care to a hospital.  

Over the years of my midwifery practice I have become more and more committed to the protection, support, and promotion of the spontaneous natural processes in pregnancy, birth, and breastfeeding, and this has been predominantly through planned homebirth.   It makes sense.  It leads to better outcomes for mother and baby.  Over the years of my midwifery practice I have also valued greatly the appropriate use of medical and surgical interventions.  In situations where the natural process is not likely to lead to good outcomes, we have excellent processes for 'Plan B'.  This is good.

I am happy to encourage the new group of midwifery students to give all they can to this profession, and I believe they may discover that midwifery will satisfy and challenge the most critical mind.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

What do we mean by 'professional advice'?

The Australian College of Midwives (ACM) has invited comment and response on its draft position statement on "Midwives working with women who seek care outside of professional advice"

I am working on a response, and would love to hear from other members who have used Appendix A in the past, and who are now including Appendix B in your paperwork (see previous post). 

I have headed this post with the question, "What do we mean by professional advice?"  There seems to me to be an assumption in the draft document that 'professional advice' is a uniform thing. I don't think it is. eg (Draft) Principle "5. Midwives should attempt to understand why women are seeking care outside of professional advice."  (Good idea, but hardly a principle to guide action.  I'll have to come back to that later.)

Sometimes the midwife disagrees with the advice from another professional, while agreeing with what the woman wants.  So is the midwife's advice professional advice?  

I see quite a few women who plan homebirth, for whom I think homebirth is a very reasonable choice, but the professional (obstetric) advice they receive is that they must be cared for in hospital for labour and birth. 

An example would be a woman who has indications from the guidelines, such as having her 6th+ baby, or a woman who has had a previous caesarean, and possibly another indication such as a post partum haemorrhage (pph) at one of her previous births. The Guidelines don't comment on planned place of birth, but out here in the real world, the only option for many women to access primary maternity care from a known midwife - best evidence based care according to many - is to ask the local midwife to attend them for planned homebirth.

In this scenario, the professional advice from me, the midwife, if I had meet this woman in early pregnancy, is that, provided there are no valid reasons to interfere with, or interrupt the spontaneous natural processes in pregnancy, birth, and thereafter, a woman is protecting herself and her baby by seeking out care that protects normal physiological birthing.  The previous caesarean, the previous pph, and the grand multiparity, although each significant factors in planning maternity care, each point to the advisability of spontaneous birthing: spontaneous onset of labour, spontaneous progress in labour, and spontaneous completion of the birthing process.  The professional care provider who is most likely to be expert at providing this package of care is the midwife who has a primary care caseload, regardless of the planned setting for birth (hospital/home).

This same woman may have initially booked with an obstetric managed service, planning birth in a private hospital or a public hospital.  As the chosen model of care becomes apparent to the woman, she may "seek care outside professional advice", and find a midwife who is willing to work in harmony with her natural processes, unless there is a valid reason to refer her for obstetric intervention.  Once again, the midwife is not being asked to do anything outside the usual scope of  a midwife's practice.  The midwife who agrees to provide care for this woman is not stepping outside professional boundaries in any way, even though she is providing care that is quite different from the standard in the mainstream.

Knowing the boundaries of midwifery practice is something that seems quite obvious to me, yet I know that some of my colleagues do not understand these boundaries as I do.

A woman who is planning homebirth, having had a caesarean for her previous birth, asked me if I am supporting her plan.  

I responded that I don't feel that I must support her plan. My duty of care in any birth is to act to protect the safety and wellbeing of the mother and her child.  If there is no reason to go to hospital, homebirth becomes the obvious choice at the time.  At present, prior to onset of labour, the plan is quite reasonable, and there is a good chance that it will continue as a reasonable choice.  I provide primary care, with a planned option for transfer to hospital if needed.  I cannot tie myself in to any commitment of setting for birth.  That is of secondary importance.

It's dinner time now.  Next time I get a chance to write I want to explore the principles that underpin decision making by midwives when women "seek care outside of professional advice"

Friday, July 05, 2013

documenting a 'Record of Understanding'

The National Midwifery Guidelines for Consultation and Referral (ACM Guidelines) are an essential tool for midwifery practice.  They set out, in a systematic way, the situations in which a midwife will initiate a conversation, or a consultation, or a referral of a woman receiving primary maternity care into a specialist level of care.

The third edition (2013) has recently been published (pictured here).  To order a copy, click here.

A new appendix to the new edition is called a 'Record of Understanding', to be used when a woman chooses to act outside the Guidelines or against the advice of her midwife. As I read through the Record of Understanding for the first time, my thoughts went to situations in which I might consider using this tool.  Recent situations in which I have prepared a written record of discussions between myself and a client, when the woman has chosen a pathway that may be at odds with usual professional advice include women who are planning homebirth after a previous caesarean, or women who have had a large number of children.

When using the new Guidelines' Appendix B: Record of Understanding, I will be required to ask the woman to answer, in writing, a series of questions:
1. What information, evidence, or concerns have you considered in your decision to decline the hospital's advice to have an elective caesarean?
2. What questions/ concerns do you have?
3. What is your understanding of the answers you received to your questions or concerns?
4. Did you discuss your maternity care option(s) with your midwife and/or other care providers? Why/why not?
5. What is your understanding of those decisions?
6. What questions do you have about your midwife's recommendations to you?
Decision-making in maternity care is always complex, and ongoing until the completion of the episode of care.  For example, a woman who finds that her baby is presenting as breech near Term is confronted with a whole series of big and small decisions: each one either opening or closing potential pathways.  The one basic choice that a woman has any degree of control over concerns the way the baby will be born: either spontaneously, or with medical management.  My role, as the woman's midwife, is to go with her and provide accurate information as she considers her options.
It seems to me that this 'Record of Understanding' has taken professional documentation to a new level, and this disturbs me.  The matter that I take issue with is the expectation, in the Guidelines, that a woman will provide written answers to these questions.  The unmentioned assumption seems to be that this documentation will be produced in the event of a coronial inquest or other professional inquiry.   I have a duty of care to the woman, and this includes supporting informed decision making.  The woman has no reciprocal duty to provide me with reasons for her choices.  The Australian Medical Association acknowledges this fact in its statement on maternal decision making.  A woman may have her own reasons for declining a recommended course of action in her maternity care, and should not be coerced or placed under pressure to explain that reason. 
The potential value of a written 'Record of Understanding' as it is described in the new Guidelines is that midwives and women will be forced to confront difficult decisions in a way that clearly has not happened in some of the well-known recent cases that have been reported publicly.