Unnecessary Early Births

By Patrick Corcoran

Despite the risks inherent in early births, many U.S. hospitals are delivering a huge number of babies ahead of time for no apparent medical reason, a health care advocacy group says.

A new study from Leapfrog Group focused on the rate of early elective births–defined as births via induced labor or a C-section before 39 weeks of pregnancy. It found that about half of the 773 hospitals around the country that agreed to provide data exceeded the group’s target rate last year of 12 percent, a recommended level that Leapfrog is reducing this year to 5 percent.

Many of the hospitals at the high end of the survey reported that roughly 40 percent of their deliveries were early elective births, and a handful reported rates above 60 percent. On the other hand, some hospitals registered early elective birth rates of close to zero.

Such deliveries are linked to higher rates of death and lifelong health problems for the babies. In part that’s because the complete gestation period gives babies’ brains and other organs a chance to fully form before being exposed to life outside the womb.

Furthermore, elective premature births, which are more likely to result in neonatal intensive medical care, cost the U.S. health care system some $1 billion annually, Leapfrog says.

“The information is extremely disturbing,” said Leapfrog Chief Executive Leah Binder, as reported in Bloomberg Business Week. “We are calling on hospitals to put policies in place to prevent early elective deliveries.”

As The Wall Street Journal reported, some hospitals have managed to quickly reduce their rates of early deliveries. The newspaper cited a 2009 study by the Utah-based hospital chain Intermountain Healthcare.

In the study, the chain found that it reduced its rate of early elective deliveries from 28 percent to less than 10 percent in six months after alerting doctors to the health consequences of the early births. After six years, the chain reduced its rate of the early deliveries to less than 3 percent.

Posted in Medical Errors, News & Notes

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