You can't really talk about serious health care reform without looking at major changes in the American way of childbirth. The L.A. Times this morning points out that one of the things driving costs ever upward is the U.S. Cesarean rate, a major surgical procedure now performed in almost one-third of hospital births:
Once reserved for cases in which the life of the baby or mother was in danger, the cesarean is now routine. The most common operation in the U.S., it is performed in 31% of births, up from 4.5% in 1965.
With that surge has come an explosion in medical bills, an increase in complications -- and a reconsideration of the cesarean as a sometimes unnecessary risk.
It is a big reason childbirth often is held up in healthcare reform debates as an example of how the intensive and expensive U.S. brand of medicine has failed to deliver better results and may, in fact, be doing more harm than good.
"We're going in the wrong direction," said Dr. Roger A. Rosenblatt, a University of Washington professor of family medicine who has written about what he calls the "perinatal paradox," in which more intervention, such as cesareans, is linked with declining outcomes, such as neonatal intensive care admissions. Maternity care, he said, "is a microcosm of the entire medical enterprise."
As the No. 1 cause of hospital admissions, childbirth is a huge part of the nation's $2.4-trillion annual healthcare expenditure, accounting in hospital charges alone for more than $79 billion.
Because spending on the average uncomplicated cesarean for all patients runs about $4,500, nearly twice as much as a comparable vaginal birth, cesareans account for a disproportionate amount (45%) of delivery costs. (Among privately insured patients, uncomplicated cesareans run about $13,000.)
Pregnancy is the most expensive condition for both private insurers and Medicaid, according to a 2008 report by the Childbirth Connection, a New York think tank.
"The financial toll of maternity care on private [insurers]/employers and Medicaid/taxpayers is especially large," the report said. "Maternity care thus plays a considerable role in escalating healthcare costs, which increasingly threaten the financial stability of families, employers, and federal and state budgets."
Are there other options, other solutions? Yes. Off-site birthing centers and home deliveries have lower C-section rates and healthier outcomes for mothers and babies. For decades, the all-powerful American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists has managed to prevent any truly rigorous review of statistics here (preferring to use data that counts miscarriages as home deliveries), but the Netherlands have done it for us.
They found that births where women actually prepared to deliver at home (as opposed to precipitous labors where sudden complications forced them to deliver there) were just as likely to have a safe delivery and healthy baby as those who delivered in a hospital under the care of a midwife.
The group who chose to give birth in hospital rather than at home were more likely to be first-time mothers or of an ethnic minority background - the risk of complications is higher in both these groups.
[...] But Professor Buitendijk said the study did have relevance for other countries like the UK with a highly developed health infrastructure and well-trained midwives.
In the UK, the government has pledged to give all women the option of a home birth by the end of this year. At present just 2.7% of births in England and Wales take place at home, but there are considerable regional variations.
Louise Silverton, deputy general secretary of the Royal College of Midwives, said, the study was "a major step forward in showing that home is as safe as hospital, for low risk women giving birth when support services are in place.
Here are just some of the things you can avoid in a home delivery: Hospital "supergerms"; birthing positions that actually make fetal distress (and thus, a C-section) more likely; the use of powerful labor-inducing drugs that not only increase the likelihood of a C-section, but also of uterine rupture; and an episiotomy that may be painful for years.
I did it both ways: A hospital birth with a doctor and nurse-midwife, and a home delivery attended by lay midwives. (I told my then-husband I would "never" have another child in a hospital after they almost killed my first-born and then bragged about how they "saved" him.) Not only did I give birth at home with my youngest, I was up cooking breakfast for everyone just a few hours later. It was an experience I wouldn't trade for the world. It was better in every possible way.
For more info on home deliveries, see Rikki Lake's documentary "The Business of Being Born" on YouTube.