Decreasing cesareans: VBAC and patient empowerment
The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists’ (ACOG) newly updated guidance1 providing greater support for women in labor who want to attempt vaginal delivery after a delivery by cesarean section is very good news, signaling a more patient-focused approach for childbirth. Both ACOG and the Society for Maternal-Fetal Medicine made clear in a 2014 Obstetric Care Consensus that culture change was necessary to lower our nation’s cesarean delivery rates.2
An estimated one-third of American babies are now delivered by cesarean,3 up from 5% in 1970,4 despite the fact that a surgical birth can add risk to a mother and her child. Women who undergo the procedure may experience hemorrhage, infection, thromboemboli, a longer recovery, and the possibility of a life-threatening condition (placenta accreta) in subsequent pregnancies. Studies indicate that many factors can affect cesarean delivery rates including: where you live (up to 35% variation by census data),5 your hospital (7.1 - 69%),6 even your nurse (8.3 - 48%).7 These data point to the fact that everyone on the care team needs to focus on providing best practices and evidence-based decision-making.
Worse, even though a cesarean delivery does not preclude future vaginal delivery—what’s known as vaginal birth after cesarean delivery, or VBAC—attempts at VBAC have declined dramatically over the last few decades.8 The VBAC attempt rate is only about 9%,9 even though the overall success rate for women who attempt a trial of labor after cesarean delivery is estimated at 60% to 80%.1 We can do better.
One reason the revised ACOG guidelines are good news is that they call on Labor & Delivery units, staff and hospitals to be fully prepared to help women whose VBAC attempts are not successful, noting that “Level I facilities must have the ability to begin emergency cesarean delivery within a time interval that best considers maternal and fetal risks and benefits with the provision of emergency care.” Essentially: “hope for the best, but prepare for the worst,” which is always a prudent roadmap in medicine and obstetrics.
The updated guidelines also include a powerful sentence: “Coercion is not acceptable.” Many women report feeling “pressured” to ditch their VBAC plans before medical circumstances dictate the need for cesarean—and research shows that only about 3% of cesareans are attributable to “maternal request.”10
The strong language employed by ACOG regarding “coercion” makes it clear that obstetricians—and the labor and delivery teams providing care, and hospitals in which they practice—should dig deeper into their reserves of patience during their patients’ labor. To do that, our medical system must be more generally attuned to the voice of the empowered patient. An informed dialogue is the focus of the Joint Commission’s SpeakUp™ campaign, including the “ABCs of Cesareans” effort. Patience mandates that progression of labor is determined by fetal and maternal status, and in concert with patient engagement. If both mom and fetus have reassuring parameters, then vaginal birth should be attempted, avoiding preconceived determinations of an “appropriate time frame for delivery.”
In addition, many hospitals are pursuing transparency initiatives, such as internal sharing of clinicians’ cesarean rates, to encourage ob/gyns to examine their clinical approaches. Others have implemented ob/gyn hospitalist programs, thus enabling clinicians to respond quickly to obstetric emergencies, optimize patient safety and quality care, and afford women time to labor on their own schedule, even when delivering by VBAC. A 2015 study of a California community hospital found that providing access to midwives and implementing an ob/gyn hospitalist program was associated with a 7% drop in the primary cesarean delivery rate in the first year, and a decrease of 1.7% per year thereafter, while the VBAC rate increased from 13.3% to 22.4%.11
By reframing VBAC as a more viable option, the new ACOG guidelines make it clear that women must be afforded the opportunity to make choices about delivery in consultation with their doctors. This shared medical decision-making model allows patients to have a voice and physicians to share best evidence-based practices. Increasing the number of VBAC attempts can help to lower our nation’s cesarean delivery rate. These new guidelines, along with appropriate patient and facility selection, will hopefully result in increased VBAC. In obstetrics, more than any other specialty, patience goes hand-in-hand with patients.
Disclosure The author reports no potential conflicts of interest with regard to this article.
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