Midwife-Assisted Community Births Post Low Adverse Outcomes

Heidi Splete

October 18, 2021

Adverse event rates were similarly low overall for women delivering at home or at community birth centers, based on data from a retrospective study of more than 10,000 births.

Increasing numbers of women in the United States are choosing to give birth at home or in freestanding out-of-hospital birth centers, prompted by high patient satisfaction and low intervention, wrote Elizabeth Nethery, MSc, MSM, of the University of British Columbia, Vancouver, and colleagues. Although data from other countries with well-integrated midwifery show no significant difference in outcomes between home or community births and hospital births, data in the United States are limited, and some studies have shown an increase in perinatal mortality for home births, the researchers said.

"ACOG identified elements for safe planned home birth: high degree of integration of midwives, education meeting International Confederation of Midwives standards, ready access to consultation and transfer, and 'appropriate selection of candidates,' all of which are present in Washington State," the researchers wrote.

In a study published in Obstetrics & Gynecology, the researchers reviewed outcomes for 10,609 births attended by members of a professional midwifery association in Washington State between Jan. 1, 2015, and June 30, 2020. Of these, 40.9% (4,344) were planned to take place at home and 59.1% (6,265) were planned to take place at birth centers. The births were attended by a total of 139 midwives. A majority (84%) of the women planning a home or community center birth were White non-Hispanic, and 64% were multiparous.

Overall, 86% of the women gave birth in the location of their choice. Intrapartum transfers to hospitals were significantly more likely for nulliparous women, compared with multiparous women (30.5% vs. 4.2%). However, the cesarean birth rates were not significantly different based on birth location (11% for nulliparous women vs. 1% for multiparous women overall), and maternal and neonatal outcomes were similar for home births and birth center births.

Approximately two-thirds (66%) of the women who transferred to a hospital had a vaginal birth, including 37% of nulliparous women and 20% of multiparous women.

Overall perinatal mortality after the onset of labor and within 7 days was 0.57 per 1,000 births, which was similar to rates seen in other high-income countries with established systems for community birth and midwifery, the researchers noted.

"This large study population of planned home and planned birth center births in a single state with well-integrated midwifery enabled our study to overcome previous limitations to studying planned community births in the United States," they said.

The study findings were limited by several other factors, notably the inclusion only of members of the Midwives' Association of Washington State, the researchers said. Although demographics of the women in the study were similar to those in other states, the results may not be generalizable to other states with different programs for training midwives or to a more diverse population; however, better integration of community midwives in the United States overall could lead to comparable outcomes in other states, the researchers concluded.

Birth Location Should Be an Informed Decision

The current study takes on the controversial topic of safety differences between planned birth locations, wrote Julia C. Phillippi, PhD, CNM, of Vanderbilt University, Nashville, Tenn., in an accompanying editorial.

"Rates of community birth in the United States have increased by 85% since 2004, to more than 62,000 births in 2017, and thousands more individuals planned community births but needed transfer to hospital care," she said. The interest in and use of home or community births may have increased in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic as families considered the perceived risks of being in a hospital, she noted.

"There is broad consensus among U.S. perinatal and neonatal health care leadership that informed choice should be a cornerstone of maternity care," Phillippi emphasized. Although outcomes were favorable for most patients using community or home birth options in the current study, the selection criteria encouraged only low-risk women to plan home or community births, and they were not compared directly to outcomes for low-risk patients in planned hospital birth settings, she noted.

"Evidence-based information about systems-level and individual characteristics associated with safe, physiologic birth can be helpful in assisting individuals planning location of birth – in terms of selecting hospital birth or opting for community birth if key safety provisions are met," said Phillippi. However, "For community birth to have favorable outcomes, systems need open channels for transfer when laboring individuals are no longer low risk or require interventions," she added.

Larger, prospective studies and ongoing risk assessment is needed to support informed decision-making, said Phillippi. Publicizing safety considerations and developing transfer pathways can not only improve patient satisfaction, but also reduce preventable perinatal morbidity and mortality, she concluded.

Patient Selection Is Key to Successful Community Birth

The current study is important at this time because of the relatively limited evidence on outcomes with planned community births in the United States, said Iris Krishna, MD, of Emory University, Atlanta, in an interview.

"Most information available is based on observational studies, as is the case with this study, and it is important to continue to add to growing literature," she said.

Overall, Krishna said she was not surprised by the study findings. "In the well-selected, low-risk patient with a certified or licensed nurse-midwife, a low rate of adverse outcomes is to be expected," she said.

"Strict criteria are necessary to guide selection of appropriate candidates for planned community birth to reduce the risk of adverse maternal and/or fetal outcomes," Krishna added. "In the appropriately selected low-risk patient with a certified or licensed nurse-midwife, a favorable outcome is achievable. It is also important to have ready access to safe and timely transport to nearby hospitals," she noted.

"Physicians should counsel patients contemplating a planned community birth that available data may not be generalizable to all birth settings in the United States or to all patients," Krishna emphasized. "For example, this cohort is predominantly non-Hispanic White patients, which typically have lower rates of adverse perinatal events in comparison to other ethnicities," she explained.

"More research is needed, and in particular research comparing planned community births with planned hospital births in the appropriately selected low-risk patient," Krishna said.

The study received no outside funding. Lead author Ms. Nethery disclosed support from a Canadian Vanier Graduate Scholarship. The researchers had no financial conflicts to disclose. Phillippi had no financial conflicts to disclose. Krishna had no financial conflicts to disclose, but serves on the Editorial Advisory Board of Ob.Gyn News.

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

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