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.

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