Most people know that hospitals and obstetricians have incentives towards c-sections, but it’s hard to fully appreciate just how many incentives there are unless you see it at work (or, like me, hear regular testimony). The fact that the hospitals get more money is only a part of the equation. The time physicians get back isn’t just for playing golf. When Clancy was in Arapaho, she was regularly faced with one of two options. She could hover over a mother all night, extracting all sorts of costly resources from the hospital along the way. She would be staying there, not seeing her daughter or her husband and not getting much goodsleep. She wouldn’t be generating any other revenue while there because she has to be on stand-by. If she delivered the baby before 6am, she would then finish her paperwork, get maybe an hour of rest, and spend the next day seeing clinic patients. If it is after 6am, then she gets the morning off. Which allows her to get some sleep, but forces patients to reschedule and means less revenue for the hospital/clinic. Alternately, she could reach for the scalpel at 8pm be done with everything before 9, come home, get rest, see all of her patients the next day. And, if she cares, make more money for the hospital and possibly herself (through bonus structures) or at least have better efficiency numbers when it came time for the performance review.
Experts say that even total C-section rates—which include cesareans for all births, not just the low-risk ones we focused on—should rarely be high. “Once cesarean rates get well above the 20s and into the 30s, there’s probably a lot of non-medically indicated cesareans being done,” says Aaron B. Caughey, M.D., chair of the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at Oregon Health & Science University School of Medicine in Portland and a lead author of the new ACOG/SMFM recommendations. “That’s not good medicine,” he says.
When asked to explain their high C-section rates, hospitals offered several responses.
Mark Rabson, corporate director of public affairs at Jersey City Medical Center, described how his hospital, which serves “a diverse metropolitan area with many socio-economic issues,” was working to lower C-section rates by, for example, reviewing the care of all providers whose cesarean rates are above 30 percent and offering them assistance in how they manage patients during labor. In addition, he says the hospital is now using midwives, healthcare professionals trained to avoid intervening in childbirth unless medically necessary, and people fluent in multiple languages to educate patients about cesareans.
Patricia Villa, a spokeswoman for Hialeah Hospital, told us “while there are many factors that impact a woman’s decision to have a cesarean section, we are focused on driving improvement in this area.” She also noted that the hospital had been recognized by the March of Dimes for it’s efforts to prevent elective early deliveries before 39 weeks.
My wife is the type of person to hold the line. I’m frankly not sure that I wouldn’t find some sort of way to rationalize interventions.
But while people know about that aspect of it, and probably know that a lot of women pressure their obstetricians for c-sections, that’s really only a part of the equation. The other part involves decisions that the OB makes well prior to the c-section decision. Intervention begets intervention. If a woman gets an appointment for induced labor, a future c-section becomes more likely. If she gets an epidural, a c-section becomes more likely. If labor is sped along through other interventions, c-sections become more likely. Why? Well, as best as I can figure, the more that a hospital intervenes, the less control the body has over the process. So even if two physicians have the exact same philosophy towards c-sections specifically, their philosophy on earlier interventions may lead to different c-section rates. And a woman’s chances of getting a c-section may depend not just on the obstetrician or the hospital, but the specific anesthesiologist on duty and how aggressive their philosophy is.
In the map on Kristin’s article, you notice that a lot of rural states have lower c-section rates. That’s at least part of why. Clancy’s employer in Arapaho didn’t even offer epidurals. The less resources, the less earlier intervention. The less earlier intervention, the less likely a c-section is to become necessary in the first place. My wife’s c-section rate isn’t just low because she views it as the Option of Last Resort, but because she’s not an interventionist generally (in obstetrics and elsewhere).
So it’s not just a question of whether a c-section is medically necessary, but also whether it becomes medically necessary along the way. Both of these things are going to depend on a lot of things like obstetrician philosophy, hospital policy, resources, other personnel, and (as important as anything else) patient philosophy. Whether they want an epidural has a cultural context, and that’s going to vary from place to place. Whether a woman will be the only person she knows that had a c-section, or whether she’s been told that’s the way to go. Whether she lives in a place where people read Mother Jones, or Newsweek.
Right now we live in a culture where, in addition to all sorts of other incentives, c-sections are normal and giving birth on hands and knees or underwater is considered weird and unnatural. Because intervention begets intervention (both psychologically and medically), and our health care system is an interventionist one from top to bottom, I am skeptical that we’re going to see change any time soon.
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