New Jersey has one of the highest cesarean rates in the country. According to U.S. Preliminary data for 2012 New Jersey has the third highest cesarean rate in the nation, 38.7% preceded by Florida (38.1%) and Louisiana (40.2%). In the last two decades repeat cesarean births without labor more than doubled in New Jersey, from 40% to 85%. According to the New Jersey Department of Health currently one in four cesareans are routine repeat operations without serious risk indications. The New Jersey VBAC Task Force wants to change that.
Task Force members agree that VBAC should be available to all low-risk women who choose to labor after a prior cesarean and increasing access to VBAC would improve obstetric care. New Jersey hospital VBAC rates vary widely, from 31.0% at Monmouth Medical Center to 0% for Memorial Hospital and Southern Ocean Medical Center in 2011. The Task Force suggested establishing a network of regional VBAC referral centers who can meet safety requirements for VBAC. The Task Force is a multidisciplinary collaborative group which includes the New Jersey Hospital Association, health insurance payers and malpractice insurers.
Hospitals often deny VBAC care by referring to the costly and realistically unattainable ACOG guidelines which recommend a surgical team and anesthesia be “immediately available” when women labor for a VBAC. Having had a prior cesarean adds a level of risk to the subsequent laboring process, however, the risks of laboring for a VBAC are the same as for women giving birth for the first time, yet women giving birth for the first time are not denied medical care, nor are they told that they are at risk because the hospital cannot guarantee that a surgical team and anesthesia will be “immediately” available in case they would need a cesarean section.
The New Jersey VBAC Task Force concluded that ACOG’s definition of “immediate access” has never been defined by ACOG or any other authority and the legal liability of this ambiguous recommendation is “not conducive to frank discussion with patients, resulting in obscure and often misleading counseling.”
Providing safe medical care for women in New Jersey who want to plan a VBAC is not an impossible task. After more than one year of deliberations, the Task Force concluded that many of New Jersey’s hospitals already have the resources that can meet the safety standards recommended to support mothers who want to plan a VBAC. The Hospital Capacity and Regional Accessibility Subcommittee reasoned that being able to provide advanced neonatal care was just as critical for responding to complications that may develop during labor for a VBAC.
New Jersey licenses 20 hospitals as intensive perinatal centers or intermediate/regional perinatal centers. These hospitals are required to have full-time on-site coverage by neonatal and pediatric specialists and consulting arrangements with anesthesiology. Responding to a Task Force survey, 14 of 20 intensive care perinatal centers reported having 24-hour in-house obstetric coverage for cesarean, availability of anesthesia and operating room teams, and 60% of the intermediate and basic perinatal centers reported 24-hour on-site coverage and the rest the availability of an off-site obstetrician within 30 minutes once the need for a cesarean was established.
Also in response to the Task Force survey, 7 of the intensive perinatal care centers and 6 of the intermediate care centers were in favor of becoming a regional VBAC referral center.
To successfully increase access to VBAC the Task Force made several recommendations:
- Re-evaluate the risks of laboring for a VBAC by comparing low-risk women with a prior cesarean with New Jersey’s benchmark population, low-risk multiparous women without a previous cesarean for a more realistic evaluation of potential maternal and neonatal complications.
- Develop a VBAC education program to educate expectant parents about the benefits and risks of laboring after a prior cesarean.
- Educate providers and hospitals about the benefits and risks of VBAC, adequate staffing and resources, labor progress patterns for VBAC , guidelines for augmentation of labor, signs and symptoms of uterine rupture or dehiscence and practice drills for appropriate response for a uterine rupture.
- Educate in-hospital staff about VBAC including, risk management, nursing, anesthesiology, neonatology, lab and blood banks to have a more coordinated response in case of complications.
- Providers should try to shift the focus of their conversation with their patients from “defensive communication and liability strategies toward true shared decision making.”
Tom Westover, MD of Cooper University Hospital in New Jersey and a member of the New Jersey VBAC Task Force will address health professionals and birth advocates about increasing access to VBAC on March 26 at the New Jersey BirthNetwork Symposium at Rutgers University Inn & Conference Center, Supporting NJ’s Birth Plan: Taking the Next Step and Implementing Evidence-Based, Mother-Friendly Maternity Practices in New Jersey.
Northern New England Perinatal Quality Improvement Network, VBAC Project
Childbirth Connection, Maternity Care and Liability: Pressing Problems, Substantive Solutions