Nursing Shortages Affect Safety During Labor and Delivery

Richard Franki

September 20, 2021

Nursing shortages are the biggest safety risk for patients in labor and delivery units, according to a recent survey of obstetricians.

Just over 58% of the 1,130 respondents put nursing shortages ahead of physician support and backup (39.0%), inconsistent standards of care (38.5%), and nursing education (31.1%) as the most important challenge to patient safety, the Ob Hospitalist Group (OBHG) said in a new report.

"The survey reveals some startling gaps in physician and patient support all along the care continuum in obstetrics and OB hospitalist programs filling them," said Lenny Castiglione, the CEO of OBHG, a national network of over 1,000 obstetric hospitalists. "As pressure builds on ob. units to improve care and reduce costs, and as clinical resources are stretched in the continuing battle against COVID-19 and its variants, health systems need to take serious measures to fill these gaps through staff recruitment, retention, and training."

The national shortage of nurses is expected to get worse over the coming years as Baby Boomers' need for health care increases and the large population (over 1 million) of older registered nurses retires by 2030, the OBHG said based on projections from the American Association of Colleges of Nursing.

Ob. hospitalists were somewhat more likely to see the nursing shortage as a major problem, compared with community-based Obs (58% vs. 48%), but the biggest difference in perception of safety risk between the two groups (53% for hospitalists vs. 22% for community physicians) involved inconsistent standards of care. "This is likely due to the ob. hospitalists' 24/7 presence on the unit, and their visibility into the care provided across the unit," the report noted.

Priorities for the Future

Participants also were asked to rank each of seven focus areas on a scale of 0 (lowest priority) to 3 (highest) by its importance in the next 5 years. Maternal mortality was identified as the highest priority by 59.2% of physicians, followed by gaps in access to care between patient populations (38.0%), rural health care (26.5%), and ob.gyn. shortage (26.4%), the OBHG said.

A number of respondents noted the increase in high-risk patients, many of whom are obese and/or older and have comorbidities. "We know that the risk of C-sections increases relative to maternal weight. We need to focus on maternal morbidity and mortality," one physician wrote in the open-ended response section.

When compared with the community obs., the hospitalists were much more likely to assign top priority over the next 5 years to maternal mortality (73% vs. 50%) and to gaps in access between patient populations (51% vs. 30%), according to the OBHG survey, which was conducted in January of 2021.

How Will Practice Change in 5 Years?

As for changes coming to obstetrical care over the next 5 years, respondents gave their strongest prediction to increased use of telemedicine, with 81.2% saying it would increase and just 14.4% predicting no change. The focus on subspecialization is expected to increase by 79.4% of participants (16.5% said no change), and 75.7% said that use of mid-level providers would rise (20.6% said no change), the survey data show.

The move toward mid-level providers was noted in many of the open-ended responses. "There is nothing mid-level about the midwifery care my colleagues provide our patients. They are experts in their field," one physician wrote, but another said, "just because I foresee a shift toward increasing utilization of mid-levels and primary care practitioners for women's health does not mean I endorse this trend."

This article originally appeared on, part of the Medscape Professional Network.


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