Friday, September 20, 2013


Picture this scene:
Part 1 - Plan A:
A woman having her first baby has laboured spontaneously through the day and the next night.  She has gone to the hospital, and spent a few hours in the water, staying upright and mobile.  At 08:00 hours her cervix has dilated to 4-5cm; her cervix is soft and baby's head is 'high'; and her contractions are less frequent than they were a few hours ago.  She is told that she needs her labour to be augmented: move to 'Plan B'.
[This is a major decision point for a labouring woman.  She can either continue working with her body's natural processes (hormonal, physical, and emotional), or give permission for medical processes to be commenced - all with the goal of a healthy woman giving birth to a healthy baby.]

Part 2 - decision to move to Plan B:
The woman agrees to augmentation of her labour, and after considering pain management options available, requests epidural anaesthesia. 
The hospital staff organise the intervention without delay: and IV line is sited, a pump with a second bag of IV fluids plus oxytocic is prepared, and the anaesthetics doctor introduces herself, asks questions about the woman's health, and explains what she is about to do.  The epidural is commenced, and after a couple of contractions the woman feels less pain and lies down quietly in the bed.  The electronic fetal monitor provides continuous information about the baby's condition, as well as charting the presence of uterine contractions.  After the doctor has checked the level of the anaesthetic block with ice, she goes out of the room.

Part 3 - invitation to participate in research
[and the reason for this post]
Soon after, a person comes into the room and introduces herself as a research midwife. She asks the woman if she would agree to being enlisted in a research trial.  She explains that the purpose of the trial is to reduce unnecessary caesareans.
She explains that, in this trial women who have already elected to have an epidural would be randomly allocated, if the question of whether or not to have a caesarean birth, to a particular test of the baby's blood (lactate), which would be accessed vaginally via a scratch on the baby's scalp.
[I won't tell you what the woman chose.  How would you respond?]

Comments on this research from a scientific, professional point of view:
  1. Research is an integral part of professional health care today.  I accept that.  
  2. The design of a particular trial - in this case to enlist women in labour after they have had an epidural, means that those who have spontaneous uncomplicated labours and births, or those who have elective surgical births, do not even think about the issues such as a decision to go to caesarean, or to continue in labour.
  3. This research seeks to look at those for whom the intervention (intrapartum fetal blood sampling for lactate measurement as an assessment of fetal wellbeing, in the presence of non-reassuring fetal heart rate trace) could be critical in making a decision about the way a baby will be born.
  4. The randomisation of all research subjects (labouring women who agree to being enlisted in the trial) into treatment or control groups seeks to prevent bias in decision-making. 
  5. Research on human subjects can only be approved if the researchers are able to demonstrate the value of the information to the relevant discipline(s), and strategies that prevent harm (to the mother and/or baby, in this case). 
    Comments on this research from a woman's point of view:
  6. If I agree to what you are asking, and my baby becomes distressed, do I have any say in what is done?  No - the decision is made according to the randomisation.
  7. I feel exhausted after a couple of nights without sleep, and now I am being asked to make a decision about something which I have never thought about before.  How can I know what's going to be best for me and my baby?  That's why the research is being done.  Noone knows what is the best way to proceed.  
  8. If I say no, I don't want to be in the research, and a decision needs to be made about whether or not to do a caesarean, how will that happen?   ...

I often argue that there is really only one real choice in childbirth: to do it yourself (Plan A), or to ask someone else to do it for you (Plan B). 

There are no guarantees in birth.  It's a journey, and decisions must be made as events unfold.

Midwives are bound, by definition, to promote normal birth.  A woman whose labour proceeds without complication is in the optimal position to give birth spontaneously, and with good outcomes for herself and her baby.   There will never be a safer or more appropriate way for these women to give birth, than to do it themselves.

Any intervention brings potential benefits and risks.  Augmentation of labour with oxytocic may, in many cases, bring about a more coordinated labour than what was being experienced before the augmentation, and a happy, healthy mother with a happy healthy baby in her arms a few hours later.  However, augmentation of labour can also lead to hyper-stimulation of the uterus, a distressed hypoxic baby, an emergency surgical birth, haemorrhage, ...

When a woman needs/chooses to move from Plan A to Plan B, the presence of a known and skilled midwife who can reassure her, and at times offer guidance, is essential.  Midwifery is not limited to promoting normal birth.  It's about being 'with woman' - a midwife with a woman, in a professional arrangement that enables sharing of information and support that is uniquely tailored to that woman and her baby.  The journey that leads to the birth is not predictable, but each woman's decision making is her own, without pressure or coercion.  This is, in my opinion, the pathway to safe birth through accessing appropriate interventions when indicated.

Tuesday, September 03, 2013

a pot of tea

my new enamel teapot
I am delighted with my new enamel teapot which my daughter found for me.

Today I would like to make a pot of tea, and talk with you about one of the challenging topics in maternity care: decision-making.

here are some of my questions:

  • Who is the decider?
  • What choices does a woman have?
  • Are there limits to personal autonomy?
  • How much information does a midwife (or obstetrician) need to give a woman when a decision needs to be made? 
You:  That's easy, it's my body, my baby, my birth.  I'm the decider.

Me:  Yes, but your decision can only be made from what is on offer at the time, can't it?

You:  What do you mean?

Me:  Let's take a very common decision that has big implications for subsequent events in birth, induction of labour.  Let's assume that you and your baby are well, that your pregnancy has continued a few days past the due date, and you are getting tired of being pregnant, of all the phone calls: "Are you still in one piece?" and waking up in the night with a half-full bladder, and half strength contractions that don't go anywhere.  Someone suggests that you ought to have induction of labour.  How would you decide?

You:  I would ask you as my midwife to tell me the pros and the cons, and I would make my mind up.

Me:  I need to declare a certain bias here.  As a midwife, by definition, I am committed to protecting and promoting the natural process unless there is a valid reason for interruption.  It sounds to me as though you are likely to come into spontaneous labour very soon, with all those runs of pre-labour contractions, and I see no clinical reason to induce labour at present, so I cannot encourage you to consider induction of labour.  I will list off some of the risks that are inherent in this procedure: a cascade of interventions, use of artificial stimulants that can lead to hyperstimulation of your uterus, and reduced blood flow to your baby; to increased perception of pain, and need for medical forms of pain management, possibly increasing the likelihood of assisted vaginal birth or even caesarean; separation of mother and baby at birth; difficulties with bonding and breastfeeding ... do you want more? 

You:  So, my decision is no.  I don't want induction of labour.

Me:  When I check you again in a week's time and you still haven't had your baby, I may want to encourage you to re-consider induction of labour.

You:  But you have convinced me that it's not a good idea.

Me:  That was last week.  We are now 10 days past your due date, and the guideline I am required to follow leads me to advise you to carefully consider induction of labour if you are past 40 weeks + 10 days.  There are pros and cons which you need to consider - some the same and some different from what we discussed last week -  as you make your decision. 

You:  I do want to have my baby, but I don't want to do anything that would hurt my baby.  How can I be sure?

Me:  There are no guarantees.  Each decision point is like a fork in the road: you must take one or the other, and there is no turning back.  I would encourage you to be reviewed at the hospital, where they can use ultrasound to check fluid levels around the baby, and the function of your baby's placenta, and do some monitoring.   If any of these tests result in non-reassuring features, there will be more 'encouragement' to proceed to the birth without delay, which could include surgical induction (breaking the waters - the membrane holding amniotic fluid around the baby), and possibly medical induction (IV syntocinon).  If all the tests are reassuring, I will encourage you to consider waiting for spontaneous onset of labour.

You:  So, although I get to make the decision, I need to trust the information and trust the person who is giving it to me.

Me:  That's right.

Another possible pathway in this scenario is that you, the woman, have made an effort to inform yourself, and decided that under no circumstances will you accept induction of labour.  You want to have your baby naturally, in your home.  You know your rights, and you decline any offer of investigations because you have no intention of being spooked by the medical system.  How much information am I required to give you?  Should I discuss all the possibilities, or should I give you my professional assessment based on my palpation of your abdomen, and my (limited) ability to auscultate and assess?

If there is an adverse outcome, am I culpable because I did not give you enough information?

Decision making is not a one-off choice; it constantly evolves as we move through a childbearing episode. The trump card that a woman has is 'Plan A' - her capacity to do it without assistance or education or coaching or therapies or any outside help. But it's the fine line between Plan A and Plan B, when intervention is likely to lead to better outcomes - that may call for expert and timely professional action.

My concern about naming a 'decider' relates to situations in which I have seen the professional treat decision making as a sort of lottery - "I can do this or I can do that - your choice" without giving sufficient information to help the person understand the choice they are making. It's an ongoing process that demands trust and reciprocity between the woman and the midwife.

Even if 95% of women who come into spontaneous labour could stay in 'Plan A', and go on to an unassisted birth, what happens to the 5%? How does a woman know? 

I hope you have enjoyed your cup of tea.
Your comments and further discussion are welcome.