Monday, February 24, 2014

Birth stories: why are they important?

A few days ago I wrote a blog post about Birth Stories.  That article has attracted a large number of visitors to the site, about X10 the usual tally, and impassioned discussion on social media sites.

The problem that I have written about there is that a revised advertising guideline for midwives, to be in effect 17th March 2014, states that "the use of patient stories to promote a practitioner or regulated health service" is a testimonial, and prohibited under the Health Practitioner Regulation National Law.  The revised guideline has taken the word 'testimonial' to mean "a positive statement about a person or thing".  

In drawing attention to this matter I hope the regulatory Board (NMBA) will see that the writing and sharing of birth stories is an important part of social dialogue between women and midwives and the whole birthing community;  that birth stories are not written primarily to promote the midwife or her practice, and therefore should not be considered testimonials.  Birth stories help the mother to recall and record for all time the often amazing journey that she undertook in bringing new life into her family.  The midwife is a small part of the birth story.  The woman and her baby are the central focus.

Having used the word search function of this site, I found a 'birth story in pictures' that I wrote in February 2010.  At the end of that post I wrote: "Please note that midwives and other registered health professionals are not permitted to use testimonials to advertise our services."

In March 2011, I wrote about 'The birth of Richie Jack', and in that post linked to the birth story blog written by his mother, Ashley.  In my post I wrote:


As the midwife I experience a parallel journey. Together we negotiate the often unpredictable and challenging terrain that leads to birth. Our partnership requires trust that goes both ways - she needs to feel able to trust me, and I her.

As I read Ash's birth story, I was reminded of my own emotional journey, and the series of decisions that were made. I felt challenged as time passed - of course I would have loved to see it all happen spontaneously. ...

I have always encouraged mothers in my care to write their birth stories, and will continue to do so, regardless of the revised guideline and its position on 'patient stories' that may mention me, the midwife, in a positive (or negative) way.  The internet and social networks are here to stay, and a mother who uses the internet as a means of sharing her story should be free to do so.

Your comments are welcome. 

Monday, February 17, 2014

The bigger picture

Grand-daughter's photography - you can see that I love her!
I have a lull in my bookings at the moment, and have set myself the challenge to consider the bigger picture.

Questions of birth/maternity care/midwifery that comprise the bigger picture are along this line:
  • How well does Australia measure up against global midwifery?
  • What is being done in Australia to protect sustainability in the midwifery profession?
  • What can a woman in Australia anticipate as she carries, births, and nurtures a baby?

It would be easy for me personally to be dismissive about the bigger picture.  Leave that to the younger generation!  I have enjoyed my career, have had many incredibly beautiful experiences with women who have given me their trust, and have invited me into their lives at their most intimate moments.  I have written many of my stories down in journals and blogs and argued my point in articles and published papers.

How well does Australia measure up against global midwifery?
The home of global midwifery is the International Confederation of Midwives (ICM).  The Australian College of Midwives (ACM) is a member organisation of ICM, and Australian codes and standards are based on the ICM Definition of the Midwife (2011).

ICM lists the following key concepts.  I will use them as a basis for my assessment of Australian midwifery as I know it, and give each point a score out of 10. I will not attempt to justify or give references, since this is a statement of opinion.  However, my opinion is based on careful reading of midwifery literature, and careful reflection on a lifetime of midwifery practice.  If the reader considers that I have made a statement that is wrong, or unsupportable, please tell me why.

ICM Key midwifery concepts that define the unique role of midwives:

  • partnership with women to promote self-care and the health of mothers, infants, and families;
  • respect for human dignity and for women as persons with full human rights;
  • advocacy for women so that their voices are heard;
  • cultural sensitivity, including working with women and health care providers to overcome those cultural practices that harm women and babies;
  • a focus on health promotion and disease prevention that views pregnancy as a normal life event.
1. partnership with women to promote self-care and the health of mothers, infants, and families:
Promoting self-care and health of mothers, infants and families is a wonderful, big picture statement. 

I would suggest that we look at rates of spontaneous unmedicated birth as an initial measure of health promotion, self care, and wellness of mothers and babies.   Spontaneous unmedicated birth will be most likely to proceed when the midwife is practising as an authentic midwife, establishing a partnership with the woman based on reciprocity and trust.   WHO (1996) stated that "In normal birth there should be a valid reason to interfere with the natural process."  Achieving spontaneous unmedicated birth is a measure of the capability of the midwife as much as the mother.  There is no safer or better way, in most instances, than for the midwife and the woman to work in harmony with natural processes.  The midwife acts in a way that minimises disturbance, disruption, interference, interruption, while observing and assessing progress and wellness.  The woman learns to minimise neocortical activity, and access her amazing supply of natural opiates.  Her oxytocin and adrelanine peak as she gives birth, providing for her baby the ideal transition to life outside the womb, and giving herself the ability to contract her womb strongly and expel the secundines (an old fashioned word meaning the afterbirth) without excessive bleeding.

In Australia more than 30% of women have caesarean births, completely by-passing these physiological states. Only about 25% of women have no analgesia for birth.  Only a tiny minority of the women receiving maternity care in Australia are cared for in labour by a known midwife - one of the evidence-based measures by which we can anticipate improved outcomes for mother and baby.  There is much room for improvement!

SCORE 4/10

2. respect for human dignity and for women as persons with full human rights
What measure is there for respect of human dignity?  I don't know.
There are many cultures in Australia, and it's not possible to generalise.  The planned homebirth 'culture' is quite exceptional.  These women are  usually not wealthy, but find the money so that they can have private midwifery care.  They value their personal dignity, within their own homes.  They accept the work of childbearing, as their own job, and give it their best. 
On the other hand, I consider the educated, relatively wealthy segment of our population, whether they are cared for in private or public hospitals, there are many examples and anecdotes of a lack of respect, an expectation by the midwives and doctors in the hospitals that they will submit to the superior training and knowledge of the medical practitioner who is most senior at the time.
My conclusion is that in Australian mainstream maternity care, there is a lack of respect for the human dignity of women as persons with full human rights, and this is backed up by the Australian Medical Association Position Statement on maternal decision making  (2013)
  1. A pregnant woman has the same rights to privacy, to bodily integrity, and to make her own informed, autonomous health care decisions as any competent individual, consistent with the legal framework of that jurisdiction.
  2. A pregnant woman’s capacity to make an informed decision should not be confused with whether or not the doctor (medical practitioner) considers her decision to be reasonable, sensible or advisable. A doctor may not treat a competent pregnant woman who has refused consent to treatment. Recourse to the law to impose medical advice or treatment on a competent pregnant woman is inappropriate.
  3. Most pregnant women strive to achieve the best possible health outcomes for both themselves and their unborn babies. ...
There is, again, much room for improvement!
 SCORE: 5/10

3. advocacy for women so that their voices are heard
Australian women have for many years attempted to have their voices heard, and organisations such as Maternity Coalition have advocated on behalf of women.  I and many of my midwife colleagues have been in the thick of it.  Many of the stories since about 2007 can be found on this, and linked blogs.  Here are a couple of pictures that describe advocacy for women:
Mothers, babies, and midwives outside a politician's office in Melbourne

more than 2000 rallied in the rain, on the lawns of Parliament House in Canberra

In response to advocacy, the government of the day (2008) announced a Review of Maternity Services, and asked the public to tell them what they wanted.  Thousands of ordinary people, mostly childbearing women, sent submissions.  Many of them asked for choice - that they could choose where they had their babies, and with whom.  Many told their stories about wonderful empowerment in giving birth at home, with their own midwife. Yet, when the report of the Maternity Services Review was published, homebirth was excluded from the reform package.  

Midwives now have indemnity insurance, but not for homebirth!  We now have Medicare, but not for homebirth!  We now have the processes so that hospitals can award clinical privileges to midwives, but except for a few in the S-E corner of Queensland, this just is not happening.

There is, again, much room for improvement!
SCORE: 3/10

4.  cultural sensitivity, including working with women and health care providers to overcome those cultural practices that harm women and babies.
It would be politically correct for me to launch into discussion of the plight of Australia's aboriginal peoples in addressing this topic.  There is a great need for such work, and for improvement in all sorts of health outcomes and health promotion.  But I do not see many indigenous people, and in my years of practice have cared for only a handful.   Not many women with indigenous heritage will seek out the services of an independent midwife.
Painting by Odetta Moore (Copyright).  "This is our baby boy waiting to be born.  That's him in the middle.  The circles round him are me, holding him and protecting him.  The tortoises in the corners are his protectors."

There is another vulnerable cultural group that we midwives are seeing, and for whom we need to improve care.  Women who are in this country on work visas, either for themselves or their husbands.  Many come from India and Pakistan, some from Africa.

The visas that these women use do not entitle them to publicly funded health care under Medicare.  The visas require health insurance, but the insurance policy usually does not cover childbirth.  These women enquire at public hospitals, and are told that they will be required to pay $11,000-$15,000 upfront for maternity care.  Some have no prenatal maternity care, and present at a public hospital in labour.  Some are choosing homebirth, as the cheaper option.  Many are Moslem women, fully covered when outside the home, and it's common to see very low levels of Vitamin D, and iron deficiency anaemia.

What can we do to improve the health outcomes for these women and their babies?

SCORE: 5/10

5. a focus on health promotion and disease prevention that views pregnancy as a normal life event.
Health promotion in maternity care in Australia relates to initiatives such as smoking cessation, obesity, family violence, and baby sleeping arrangements.  There is little recognition of the fact that pregnancy is a normal life event; that health outcomes are best when technology and medicine and surgery are used sparingly; and that health outcomes are best when exclusive breastfeeding is initiated at birth.

Pregnancy is seen, in mainstream maternity care, as a minefield; a disaster waiting to happen.  Women are investigated, tested, and explored - in expectation of something awful.  Concepts of informed decision making are poorly understood, and even more poorly followed.  Women report being bullied if they question a plan of action, or try to decline an offered treatment.

Australian maternity services are medically driven, with obstetric hierarchy dominating most services and decisions.  The RANZCOG College Statement on Homebirths, while attempting to support personal autonomy and informed decision making, leaves little room for discussion, and a great deal of room for coercion:
"... While supportive of the principle of personal autonomy in decision making, RANZCOG cannot support the practice of planned homebirth due to its inherent risks and the ready availability of safer options for labour and delivery in Australia and New Zealand. Where a woman chooses to pursue planned homebirth, it is important that reasons for this are explored and that her decision represents an informed choice, considering all the possible benefits and potential adverse maternal and perinatal outcomes. ..."
There is, in my opinion, ample evidence supporting planned homebirth, with plans for transfer of care to hospital in a timely manner when indicated.

There is, again, much room for improvement!

SCORE: 3/10




Friday, February 07, 2014

collaboration, coercion, and concocted evidence

Today I would like to write about an experience that I have found very difficult, and I know the parents of the baby shared my concerns.

It is not easy for me to write about this.  I'm usually a peace maker.  I'm usually more pragmatic; I don't like being idealistic about birth issues, simply because life is not perfect.

This post follows the previous one, in which I have written about some of the 'carrot and stick' aspects of maternity reform.   One 'stick' is the cost of midwifery services.  While one-to-one primary maternity care by a midwife, and use of hospital facilities only when indicated - the basic best practice model - describes pretty much the scope of private midwifery services, and thousands of dollars are 'saved' by the state for each woman who does not require hospitalisation for birth, the women who choose care from a midwife pay for the privilege.   

The second 'stick' that I want to consider is collaboration

Collaboration, which in theory means that professionals work together so that the consumer/patient receives optimal care, is a requirement for eligible midwives who wish to enable women in our care to claim Medicare rebates (See Collaboration Determination 2010).   I have no problem with collaboration.  BUT, I have a big problem when, instead of collaboration a woman in my care is subjected to coercion, bullying, and fear-mongering with concocted data being presented as evidence.  I have a big problem when a bureautically-defined process that's called collaboration is a requirement for midwives, but no doctor, and no hospital is required to reciprocate.

From time to time as I write at this blog I include stories from my experience.  Today's story of (non-) collaboration, coercion, and concocted evidence goes like this:

Jill and her husband Jack (for want of better names) were expecting their third baby.  Jill is a healthy young woman, and she gave birth without incident to her other two children at home in my care. 
When Jill spoke to me about maternity care for the birth of this baby, I explained that we needed to find a suitable doctor to provide a referral to me for antenatal and postnatal midwifery services, in order to comply with the medicare collaboration rules. 
The local GP who Jill had seen previously agreed to collaborate, and it all looked good.  Jill was happy to see the GP and had routine tests and investigations arranged.  The doctor asked Jill to come back for some checkups during her pregnancy.

>>> fast forward to 36 weeks
I visited Jill and Jack and the children in their home.  I noted that Jill had found the summer heat rather taxing!  We had had a run of four or five very hot days, which is taxing for everyone.  I palpated her abdomen, and thought the baby was not very big.  I remembered that neither of the other two children had been large.  OK, I thought, let's see how this baby looks in a couple of weeks' time.  Jill had been having some troublesome pre-labour contractions, especially in the evening.  I encouraged her to rest, to eat nourishing food, and to keep her baby growing in her womb for a couple more weeks.
A couple of days later Jill's GP saw her, and told her there was a problem: the baby was too small.  An ultrasound to estimate the size of the baby was arranged.  Jill was told her baby was small, and she had too little amniotic fluid.  Jill's GP told her she was to go to the tertiary referral hospital for review.  Jill is a logical thinker, and she tried to discuss her options.  No discussion!  And you had better rethink the plan for homebirth too!
Jill phoned me and told me she was feeling bullied.  She respected the doctor's opinion, and was prepared to accept investigations, but she felt she was being pushed up against a wall.
The next couple of weeks were busy, with visits to the GP, visits to the fetal monitoring unit at the big hospital, arranging family members to care for the children, and arranging time off work for Jack.

>> 38 weeks
Time for another ultrasound growth scan. 
Would you believe it, the baby's not growing as well as we would like!  Estimated weight 2.4 Kilos.
Baby's placenta is fine, but it might not continue to function well.
Advised to have an induction of labour tomorrow.
Jill talked it over with me. 

[I could not help but ask myself, would I have raised the alert about this baby; about this pregnancy?  No, I don't think so.  Had I missed something important?]
Jill was finding the pressure overwhelming.  I reassured her, that she could choose the pathway.  I encouraged her to make the best decision that she could in the situation; that I would work with her at the hospital or at home.
Jill decided to accept the hospital's offer of induction of labour by artificial rupture of membranes.
The labour and birth progressed normally, and five hours after arriving at hospital, Jill gave birth without incident to her healthy baby boy.   I looked down at him and thought, "he's not too little!"  He later weighed in at a healthy 2.8 kilos.

Later that evening, Jack and Jill wanted to take their new baby home.  The doctor from the paediatric department arrived in their room, and told them the hospital required Jill to remain in hospital for 24-48 hours, so that the baby could be observed for the symptoms of early onset group B streptococcus (EOGBS). 
Jill had received an antibiotic in labour to prevent EOGBS, and argued that she was an experienced mother, and would recognise if her baby became ill.  The doctor then presented some concoction of evidence - who knows what she actually said!  What Jack and Jill heard, and told me, was that they were told that 50% of the babies of mothers with positive GBS swabs will die from the disease.  That's scarry!  Jack phoned me and asked me to talk through EOGBS with them, which I did.  They went home.  Baby continued to feed from Jill's breast and thrived.

[For those who are interested, I would like to note here that GBS is a serious infection.  There is a high mortality statistic related to GBS, but it did not apply in any way to Jill's baby.  A baby who develops GBS and is not treated, either in labour or after birth, would have approximately a 50-50 risk of dying from the infection.  That's why we treat infection in labour or after birth so seriously.]
The coercion and concoction of evidence that Jill has experienced in this episode of care is a very distressing phenomenon.  I wish it was an isolated event.  Sadly it's not.  And I regret that Jill and Jack experienced the coercion and bullying as a result of my collaboration.

Monday, February 03, 2014

some of the carrots and sticks of maternity reform

A few weeks ago I wrote:
Regulatory pressures that have increased since the previous government's maternity reform package was implemented in 2010 are like the carrot and the stick.  The 'eligible midwife' carrot is that certain midwives earn special privileges:  Medicare rebates, clinical access to hospitals, and prescriber authority.  The 'eligible midwife' stick is the linked requirements and cost of professional indemnity insurance, collaborative arrangements with obstetricians, and getting over increased bureaucratic hurdles such as the midwifery practice review.  There is no reliable evidence that this approach will make birth safer for mothers and babies, or eliminate the fear of a rogue element in midwifery. ...
Today I would like to look closer at an example of what I mean by the 'stick'.

  • One-to-one midwifery is accessible only to the relatively wealthy, who can afford to pay, and the lucky, who are accepted into public hospital caseload programs,