It has been nearly 35 years since the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) recommended against delivering babies or inducing labor before 39 weeks of gestation, except when there are medical complications, such as the mother's high blood pressure (pre-eclampsia; see our recent blog on the Downton Abbey all-too-real plot line), diabetes or signs that the fetus may be in distress.
So why, then, are an estimated 10 to 15 out of 100 U.S. babies delivered early every year for no medical reason?
That reality is examined in a recent story by Kaiser Health News and the Washington Post. "After 37 weeks, patients really push for it because they are miserable and don't want to be pregnant anymore," Alfred Khoury, director of maternal-fetal medicine at Inova Fairfax Hospital, told KHN/Washington Post. "Or they say, 'My mother is here' or 'I have to be in a wedding.'"
Sometimes, it’s a matter of provider availability. Physicians who work alone or in rural areas might prefer to schedule deliveries before 39 weeks for time-management purposes. That’s a bad idea, but, said Helain J. Landy of the department of obstetrics and gynecology at MedStar Georgetown University Hospital, "The reality of caring for patients, or [doctors'] day-to-day needs, may sometimes interfere with following the guidelines."
In 2012, Patrick Malone represented a family in a medical malpractice lawsuit against a group of obstetricians for brain damage to a baby that resulted from misconceived plans for an early delivery. In that case, the doctor followed outdated medical literature that suggested babies of mothers with gestational diabetes should be delivered early even if monitoring shows the baby is doing fine. Mr. Malone's closing argument of the trial on behalf of both baby and mother can be read here.
Now, poor doctoring and patient ignorance are coming under the control of some government and private insurers, who are discouraging and sometimes penalizing doctors and hospitals for delivering babies early without cause.
It’s a good idea from both a health and financial perspective.
Often, prematurely delivered babies develop problems ranging from breathing and heart disorders to anemia and bleeding in the brain that land them in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) where, according to KHN/Washington Post, the average charge is $76,000 per stay. (Learn about NICU injuries in our backgrounder.)
The folks who pay most of that tab also want to avoid subsequent medical costs to treat problems including jaundice, feeding difficulties and learning and developmental issues. Sometimes the health problems of preemies last their whole life.
As reported in the story, UnitedHealthcare, the nation's largest private health insurer, pays hospitals more if they take steps to limit early deliveries without medical cause and show a drop in their rates. And as of July, Medicare, which pays for disabled women to give birth, will require hospitals to report their rates of elective deliveries before 39 weeks. Hospitals might be penalized beginning in 2015 if their rates remain high.
Some insurers refuse to pay for unnecessary early deliveries at all. The South Carolina Medicaid program and BlueCross/BlueShield of South Carolina don’t reimburse providers for performing early deliveries without medical cause. Those two insurers cover more than 8 in 10 births in that state. Several other states either have or are considering such policies.
We’re reluctant to endorse such sweeping measures because individuals have different needs. But unnecessary early delivery is never a good idea.
Even without official prodding, some hospitals have taken steps to curtail elective early deliveries, and some simply won’t perform them. After St. Joseph Medical Center in Houston stopped performing them in 2011, NICU admission rates for babies born between 37 and 39 weeks dropped 25 percent in the first year.
Unfortunately, sometimes brawn works better than brain in encouraging practitioners to curb elective early births. One study mentioned by KHN/WP found that educating doctors about the risks was less effective in reducing rates of early deliveries than having medical staff simply prohibit the practice.
But some physician groups don’t like being told how to practice medicine.
"We oppose the legislative control of medicine," said Jeanne Conry, president-elect of ACOG told KHN/WP. Conry says her organization has developed its own "clear, effective guidelines" laying out clinical markers for determining when early delivery might be appropriate.
And as one obstetrician noted, when states or insurers get involved, doctors may hesitate to deliver early even when there are clinical reasons to do so. "Outcomes are best when there is a doctor-led process, rather than a legislative or payment mandate," he said.
Even the March of Dimes, that notable champion of safe birth practices, is wary of using financial rewards or penalties. "Payment is a really big hammer, and we want to have a comfort level with a policy so we don't cause unintended consequences [such as making doctors reluctant to perform early deliveries even when they are needed],” Cindy Pellegrini, a March of Dimes executive told KHN/WP.
Some doctors welcome the oversight, as one obstetrician said, to help "us all do the right thing" and make it easier to educate women.
But decades after the ACOG guidelines, only 1 in 3 hospitals reports rates of elective early deliveries at or below the goal of 5 in 100, according to the Leapfrog Group, an organization of businesses focused on patient safety. Many still have rates higher than 15 in 100.
Some of the resistance, unfortunately, might be because NICUs are profit centers for many hospitals.
The best way to address the wisdom of full gestation is to educate patients. There’s some work to do there—one survey from a couple years ago involving 650 women who had recently given birth found that half considered it safe to deliver before 37 weeks.
If you are expecting, or expecting to be expecting, make sure you and your obstetrician are on the same page regarding the optimum time for delivery. Do not accept any reason other than medical necessity for inducing labor before the due date, or otherwise delivering prematurely. It’s bad medicine with potentially lifelong consequences.