West Michigan VBAC Access Update

Source: 2015 Geocoded Michigan Birth Certificate Registry.
Division for Vital Records & Health Statistics, Michigan Department of Health & Human Services

A year ago, I wrote a blog about how hospital bans against vaginal birth after cesarean (VBAC) limit options for Muskegon families. I used birth data from the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services to compare percentages of people with low-risk pregnancies who have a cesarean after a prior cesarean in Muskegon and surrounding counties. Not surprisingly, VBACs are more common where hospitals support them.

The data available that I used was from 2008 to 2014. Since then, 2015 data has been released. I wanted to update this information to see if there were any changes, explore what might be impacting this change and predict how this situation might change in coming years based on current developments in healthcare policy and services.

Statewide, there has been improvement. In 2015, a total of 2,006 people had VBACs, compared to 1,882 in 2014, an increase of 124. When we look at West Michigan counties, however, only Muskegon County and District Health Department #10, which includes Oceana, Newaygo and eight other counties, saw an increase. Kent county births included 40 fewer VBACs and Ottawa county had 3 fewer than the year before.

There are a few issues with this data and that make it difficult to draw conclusions from. First, the two-to-three-year lag time from when the year ends until the data becomes available makes it less useful. We can reflect on what may have happened two years ago to impact these changes, but it is less relevant than being able to access real-time data. Secondly, the online database only provides this particular piece of information by county. In a large county, like Kent, it would be interesting to see how being in an urban, suburban or rural area or proximity to a specific hospital may impact access.

When applying this information to our doula practice, we see clients make a lot of different choices when it comes to choosing a provider and location for their planned VBAC. While some Muskegon area families are happy to travel to Spectrum Health Butterworth in Grand Rapids to deliver, others prefer the intimacy of the small practice at Gerber Memorial Women’s Health, also under Spectrum, in Fremont. Still others have decided to stay in Muskegon and show up in labor at Mercy Health Hackley, while home birth after cesarean (HBAC) is a clear choice for others.

Things may change in 2018. Dr. Tami Michele, who has practiced at Spectrum Health Gerber Memorial for many years, is switching over to Spectrum Health Medical Group Ob/Gyn, with locations on 68th St. and on Mid Towne in Grand Rapids. Some say the move is to help increase the access to VBACs at Butterworth, which serves more patients. Dr. Michele is former doula, whose advocacy for those who wish to plan a VBAC has earned her a national reputation. What is less known at this time is how her moving from a small, rural hospital to a large metropolitan one will impact access to VBACs for those outside of Grand Rapids. Some will surely follow her, while others may feel that they lost a resource.

Another recent change on the national landscape was the publication of the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists updated guidelines on VBAC, which appeared in the November issue of Obstetrics and Gynecology. According to Mark Turrentine, MD, chair of ACOG’s Committee on Practice Bulletins-Obstetrics, the guidelines are meant to ensure delivery at the safest facility, “However, this absolutely should not result in women having limited access to VBAC.”

According to Jen Kamel, founder of VBACFacts.com, the guidelines are an improvement over those released in 2010. She quotes the new guidelines, “Available data confirm that TOLAC [trial of labor after cesarean] may be safely attempted in both university and community hospitals and in facilities with or without residency programs.” She interprets this to mean that if a hospital can handle deliveries, they should offer VBAC, because an emergency cesarean may be required in any birth, even a low-risk one.

How local staff changes and changes in the ACOG guidelines will impact local access remains to be seen. Will more people be able to access VBACs at Butterworth, or will support at Gerber decline? Will the 2017 ACOG guidelines result in a reversal of bans at Mercy Health Hackley, North Ottawa Community Hospital and Spectrum Health Gerber Memorial, or will the liability concerns prevail? Time will tell, but we won’t be able to see the data until 2020!

In the meantime, we will continue to support families in all their choices, whether they choose a repeat cesarean, a VBAC at a hospital or birth center of their choice, or at home.

Preterm Labor: Understanding Treatment Protocols

Birth Quest doula attends lecture with Obstetric residents about preterm labor.

On August 22nd, 2017, Sandy Parker from On the Path Yoga and I drove to the New Holland Brewery in Grand Rapids to hear Dr. June Murphy, DO, Maternal Fetal Medicine Fellowship Director at St. Joseph Mercy Oakland Hospital, talk about “Advances in Management of Preterm Labor: Achieving Optimal Practice.” The lecture was at an event that combined the journal clubs of obstetric residents at Mercy Health Hackley in Muskegon and Metro Health (University of Michigan) in Grand Rapids. The event was sponsored by Hologic, the makers of the fetal fibronectin test.

Understanding the ever-changing standard of care involving preterm labor is important for maternal and infant health advocates, like doulas and childbirth educators. People who experience preterm labor are often confused about why treatment varies so much between patients. Not understanding the standard of care can lead to anger when it appears that patients have not been treated equally. While unequal care can occur, protocols can prevent bias and reassure patients that everything possible is being done to protect them and their infant.

While preterm labor is the leading cause of infant mortality in the US, it is very common and often harmless. In fact, I learned that as many as 1 in 4 women will experience four contractions per hour prior to 32 weeks! However, 30% of preterm labor resolves spontaneously, without treatment. Only 1 in 10 women who are diagnosed with preterm labor will give birth within 7 days. In other words, uterine contractions poorly predict whose baby will be born too soon!

To complicate matters, steroids given to mothers with preterm labor improve newborn outcomes when given as late as 34 – 36 weeks, but can be harmful when given unnecessarily.

So, what are providers supposed to do? Fortunately, the March of Dimes created the Preterm Labor Assessment Tool (PLAT), an algorithm, or decision tree, based on the Rose et al study (2010), to assist healthcare providers in deciding whether to admit someone in preterm labor. Dr. Murphy explained how the cut-offs for cervical length combined with the fetal fibronectin results best predicted who would deliver early. Unfortunately, the protocol does not prevent preterm birth, but does save money, time and stress from unnecessary hospitalizations.

In addition to the lecture, residents reviewed two articles, one comparing the efficacy of vaginal progesterone to an injection. Studies in the last decade have shown that progesterone treatment to prevent preterm birth is effective. Barriers to this treatment include problems with insurance reimbursement and compliance with office visits to receive injections. Vaginal progesterone has the advantage of being cheaper and easier to administer. Although the study was small, it showed promise for an alternative, but effective, treatment to prevent preterm delivery and save lives.

Dr. Murphy said that if a woman presents to a hospital in preterm labor and there was a thought bubble above her fetus, if would say, “Follow the protocol!” The causes of prematurity are complex and interrelated. Clinical providers have a limited role in addressing the underlying causes of prematurity and the infant mortality that results. Standardized care based on the latest research can reduce treatment influenced by bias and help achieve equity.

Can CNMs attend VBAC deliveries in West Michigan hospitals? The answer is: it depends!

As a birth advocate, supporting the rights of women who plan a vaginal birth after cesarean (VBAC) will likely keep me busy for the duration of my career.  My heart goes out to women who have to navigate their healthcare options for childbirth after a cesarean one facility, practice and provider at a time. At the end of their inquiries, many find that their options are limited by their individual histories, provider decisions, hospital policies, insurance reimbursement and even politics.

Since October, I’ve been working through the West Michigan Better Birth Network, the local chapter of the non-profit, Birth Network National, to address the official VBAC ban at Spectrum Health Gerber Memorial. We have collected stories of women who have had VBACs there in order to stress to administrators that, despite being counseled that the main hospital campus, Spectrum Health Butterworth in Grand Rapids, is the safest place to labor and deliver, they have legitimate reasons for choosing a community hospital setting. [Link to a sample letter from Rebekah Thompson of New Life Doula Services. Link to my own letter from the perspective of a Substance Abuse Prevention Specialist.]

I was recently attending an event at Amanda Holbert’s yoga studio, Renew Mama. While discussing the work of the WMBBN, Amanda brought up the “ban” on CNMs attending VBACs in West Michigan hospitals. Amanda inspired me to look into this restriction further. Why could CNMs attend VBACs in some hospitals, like Borgess in Kalamazoo, but not at Spectrum Health Butterworth (the only hospital in West Michigan that both allows VBACs and has CNMs who deliver there)?

I called Spectrum Health to ask about their policy on CNMs attending VBAC deliveries and was referred to Charmaine Kyle, Clinical Nurse Specialist in Women and Infant Services. Right away, she informed me that the hospital does not have an explicit policy banning CNMs from attending VBAC deliveries. I checked in with Jen Kamel of VBACfacts, an advocate for greater access to VBACs nationwide, who suspected internal politics to be the culprit.

Before hearing back from Charmaine with a definitive answer, I attended the American College of Nurse Midwives (ACNM) Michigan Affiliate conference in Kalamazoo.  There, I met midwives from across the state, most of whom are supported in attending VBACs at the hospitals where they work. Meeting these midwives made me even more determined to find out what is causing the restriction and advocate for overcoming it – West Michigan women deserve all possible options!

This past Wednesday, I received a reply: “a midwife is available through the residency clinic and would be able to establish care with a patient antepartum.  When it comes time for delivery the midwife would partner with an obstetrician and co-manage the care during labor.  The only problem right now is we don’t have enough midwives to provide 24/7 coverage.  Our hospitalist (core faculty) obstetricians would manage the care during the night and on weekends.” In other words, a woman could see a midwife for prenatal care, but could only have one in attendance at her birth if she happens to deliver during normal business hours.

After speaking with a CNM in private practice who delivers at Spectrum Health Butterworth, I learned they are in a similar situation. The hospital’s laborist (salaried staff Ob/Gyn) will not cover them in the event a cesarean becomes necessary, so an obstetrician from their practice has to both be available and willing to stay at the hospital until the mom delivers without being paid to do so. Since they cannot guarantee that this requirement will be met, the midwives who practice at the hospital cannot advertise their ability to take on pregnant women planning VBACs.

Several changes could move West Michigan toward increased access to CNM-attended VBAC births in hospitals. First, Spectrum Health Butterworth could hire more midwives so that those working in their residency clinic could be paid to cover births occurring 24-hours a day. Secondly, the hospital could further find creative solutions to overcome the liability fears of the laborist which lead to the unwillingness to cover the midwives working in private practice. Thirdly, other hospitals that allow VBACs could hire midwives.  Finally, smaller community hospitals who already have midwives delivering there could remove their VBAC bans.

Are CNMs able to attend VBACs in hospitals in your area? What worked to increase access in your community? Do you wish you had this option?  I want to hear from you!