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.

VBAC Bans Limit Options for Muskegon Women

VBAC Bans Limit Options for Muskegon Women

Healthy People 2020 (HP2020) is a national initiative through the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) to improve the health of all Americans by creating targets for improving leading health indicators in a specified time frame. Increasing vaginal births after cesarean (VBAC) for low-risk women is one of those indicators.

There is no way to measure progress on these outcomes without data. Data is essential to any process to improve health. If we don’t know where we’re starting, we have no idea if our interventions are having the intended impact. For this reason, the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS) started collecting and sharing information by county on the percentage of women with a prior cesarean who have a repeat cesarean (to calculate the opposite, or percentage of women with a prior cesarean who did not have a repeat cesarean, subtract the percentage given from 100).

Not surprisingly, when compared to surrounding counties, Muskegon ranks last. In fact, in 2014, the most recent year for which data is available, only 16 women in Muskegon had a VBAC! This was not always the case. When women were encouraged to plan VBACs and deliver at local hospitals in 1999, this number was 83! VBAC bans make a difference.

Kent County leads West Michigan in the percentage of women having VBACS. When it comes to options, Kent County women can choose from three hospitals, Metro, Spectrum Health Butterworth and Mercy Health St. Mary’s. All of these hospitals allow VBACs.

Why does this matter? Why should women be concerned about their access to options for giving birth after a cesarean? The truth is that laboring and attempting a VBAC is less risky for most women than having major surgery. Family size also matters. The risks decrease with each successful VBAC and increase with each subsequent cesarean.

While many providers inform women of the risk of uterine rupture when attempting a VBAC, women are almost never informed of the risks of repeated cesarean surgeries. Every year in the month of October, the International Cesarean Awareness Network (ICAN) works to educate women about one of those risks: accreta. Accreta is a condition in which the placenta attaches too deeply into the uterine wall. According to their website, in the presence of placenta previa, the risk of accreta is 3% with the first repeat cesarean and increases to 67% for fifth or higher. Seven percent of women with placenta accreta will die from excess blood loss. Many women are encouraged to have a repeat cesarean without ever being informed of the risk of accreta. In fact, many women first learn about what accreta is when they are diagnosed with it!

When I speak with women in Muskegon about what influences their decision on how to birth after a cesarean, most tell me that the distance to travel to a hospital without a VBAC ban is just too far. They don’t want to travel for care or risk having a baby in their car. Some don’t have reliable transportation or gas money to make it to a hospital that allows VBAC. Most women want to give birth in their own community with the providers they know and trust. This is where their support system is and they don’t want to accept additional challenges by having a baby far from home.

One of the roles of doulas is educating the public on their options. If you are pregnant or planning a pregnancy after a prior cesarean, hiring a doula may be a first step in learning about your available options.

At Birth Quest, we’d like to hear from you! Are you a Muskegon woman who planned a VBAC? If you chose a repeat cesarean, what were the factors that influenced your decision? Your experiences may help another woman in a similar situation. Thanks for sharing!