Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Questioning a midwife about women and risk

I am reluctant to make any broad statements about privately practising midwives and the way each one approaches a professional situation in which the woman has risk factors.  Each midwife, and each woman, is unique.  In fact, that's what the often repeated phrase 'woman centred care' points to: that the care for each woman is approached by her midwife from an individual perspective.

A midwife whose practice is under the regulatory spotlight for events that led to allegations that she has engaged in unprofessional conduct when she agreed to provide homebirth care for women in a risk category* is on the stand, under oath, and quizzed by the Barrister acting on behalf of the statutory body.  Here are a selection of the questions that this midwife may be required to answer.  Perhaps other midwives will take a moment to reflect on how we would answer these questions.

* The 'risk' profile could include, for example, postmaturity, prematurity, birth after caesarean, multiple pregnancy, breech presentation.  

With reference to a woman who wishes to give birth at home, the midwife is asked:
"Do you accept that you have a professional responsibility to inform the woman of risks?"
"Do you consider that after you have informed the woman of risk, such as post maturity, or previous caesarean, that it is appropriate for you to agree to homebirth?"
"Do you accept that homebirth after caesarean (hbac) entails higher risk than homebirth without previous surgery?"
"Do you agree that risks in a vaginal birth after caesarean (vbac) birth are better managed in hospital if they occur?"
"If as you say there are some risks for the vbac at home, why did you not record this in your notes?"
"What evidence do you rely upon for permitting vbac at home?"
"What special preparations did you make for a high risk birth at home?"
"Did the mother lead the decisions about homebirth, or did you give her the green light?"
"Did you consider saying no to homebirth, and sending the woman to a doctor?"
"In your midwifery practice, do you follow the Australian College of Midwives National Midwifery Guidelines for Consultation and Referral (ACM Guidelines)?"
"Do you accept that the ACM Guidelines state that the pathway for birth after caesarean is to at least consider referral and transfer to obstetric care?"
"Do you accept the first guiding principle of the ACM Guidelines, that 'As a primary caregiver, the midwife, together with the woman, is responsible for decision making.'?"
"Do you as midwife accept that you and the woman are jointly responsible for the decision to give birth at home?"
"On reflection, with the wisdom of hindsight, do you agree that you made a poor decision in providing home birth care in this situation?"
"Are you able to give the panel the assurance that if you were faced with a similar situation again, you would act differently?"
"Don't you think that a woman who is more than 10 days postmature, and unable to give birth in a small hospital, is too high risk for homebirth, where there are even fewer resources on hand than at a small hospital?"

The main 'requirement' for homebirth is that the woman is able to labour spontaneously without medical stimulation of labour or pain relief.  Midwives attending homebirth use no drugs to stimulate labour or to ease pain.  The only stimulation of labour available for homebirth is natural processes, such as walking, nipple stimulation, sexual intercourse, and perhaps a special meal.  If a woman who has had a previous caesarean, or whose baby is in a breech presentation, intends to give birth spontaneously, she usually accepts the requirement for spontaneous onset and good unmedicated progress in labour. 

The polarisation of midwifery care into 'planned homebirth with a private midwife' and 'standard hospital care for birth' is in itself unreasonable.

Physiological birth is a basic function of the female of the species.  In our world today we have the opportunity to interrupt physiological processes if we think they are progressing in a way that would lead to poor outcomes.

Consider any other physiological process: breathing, for example.
I breathe because that's what my body does.
I continue to breathe whether I am conscious of the fact or not.
If breathing becomes difficult, this can be a warning sign that prompts me to seek medical attention.

In the same way, a physiological labour will proceed because that's what the woman's body does.
She will continue to labour whether she is paying attention to it or not.
If labour becomes difficult, this can be a warning sign that can prompt transfer to another level of care.

Planned homebirth is 'Plan A'.  The midwife checks the fetal heart, or records signs of progress, or monitors the woman's vital signs in preparation for intervention if that becomes necessary.  The midwife has (or should have) no intention to interrupt the natural processes without a valid reason.  A transfer to hospital, 'Plan B,' is a change in the plan.   There are different rules in operation under 'Plan B' than 'Plan A'.

Effective decision making in labour requires a shared responsibility for the decisions that are made.  The midwife has a certain body of knowledge, and familiarity with the processes, and the woman has other knowledge about herself, her values, and her life direction.  Together they are able to navigate the often unpredictable journey of bringing a baby into the world.  A midwife is not a hired help, employed to facilitate a certain preferred option.  Active participation in decision making protects the wellbeing and safety of mother, baby(ies), and the future of the midwife.

Birth is a highly contested zone.  Our society takes a paternalistic attitude towards birth, through the regulation of the midwifery and medical professions, and the oversight of institutions such as hospitals.  This is good - to a degree.

However, the one who is literally 'holding the baby' at the end of the day is the mother, and she is usually within an immediate family and broader community.  Unless the mother-family-community relationships are broken down beyond repair, the best place for a child to be cared for and to grow is within that network.  A midwife works in partnership with the woman, for the childbearing period, promoting health, protecting wellness, and supporting the development of healthy families.

There will always be aspects of risk that either exist prior to the onset of labour, or that develop during labour.  The midwife who recognises and acts appropriately in the care relationship, and the woman who engages in an intelligent way in decision-making, will have a high level of safety built into their care plan.  There is no safer way than Plan A for a well woman to approach birth.  When complications are present the care decisions become more complex, and the need for medical attention becomes more urgent.  A midwife and woman working together in a trusting relationship bring strength and confidence to the decision making process.

Your comments are welcome.

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