Rural Areas With Local Obstetrical Care Have Better Perinatal Outcomes

Ted Bosworth

September 16, 2020

In rural counties, the absence of active labor and delivery (L&D) units is associated with a significant increase in perinatal mortality, according to a retrospective study using county-level data from the Alabama Department of Public Health.

Although association does not establish causation, these data raise concern "for the current trend of diminishing L&D units that is occurring in many rural settings," according to the authors of the study, led by John B. Waits, MD, of Cahaba Medical Care, Centreville, Ala., in Annals of Family Medicine.

When mortality per 1,000 live births was compared over a 15-year period (2003-2017) between 15 counties with and 21 counties without local L&D units, those with the units had lower overall infant mortality (9.23 vs. 7.89; P = .0011), perinatal mortality (8.89 vs. 10.82; P < .001), and neonatal mortality (4.74 vs. 5.67; P = .0034). The percentages of low-birth-weight babies born between 2003 and 2014 were 9.86% versus 10.61% (P < .001) for counties with and without L&D units, respectively.

The relative increased risks (RR) for these adverse outcomes in counties without L&D units were statistically significant and substantial, ranging from about 8% for a pregnancy resulting in a low-birth-weight infant to slightly more than 21% for perinatal mortality.

Over the study period, there were 165,525 live births in the 15 counties with L&D units and 72,177 births in the 21 counties with no such units. In counties without L&D units, the average proportion of White people was higher (73.47% vs. 60.86%), and that of African Americans was lower (22.76% vs. 36.23%). Median income ($40,759 vs. $35,604) and per capita income ($22,474 vs. $20,641) was slightly higher.

Of the 67 counties in Alabama, this study did not include those considered urbanized by the Alabama Office of Management and Budget even if classified rural by other statewide offices, such as the Alabama Rural Health Association. Any county with at least one L&D unit was considered to have a local unit. Three counties with L&D units that closed before the observation period was completed were excluded from the analysis.

Dr. John S. Cullen

The Alabama data appear to identify a major problem in need of an urgent solution, according to John S. Cullen, MD, a family physician in Valdez, Alaska, and chair of the American Academy of Family Physicians Board of Directors.

"Almost 20% of U.S. women of reproductive age live in rural communities," he said in an interview. The data from this study provides compelling evidence "that the loss of rural maternity care in this country has contributed to the increase in newborn mortality in rural communities."

There are many limitations for this study, according to the authors. They acknowledged that they could not control for many potentially important variables, such as travel time to hospitals for those in counties with L&D units when compared with those without. They also acknowledged the lack of data regarding availability of prenatal care in places with or without L&D units.

If lack of L&D services in rural areas is a source of adverse outcomes, data suggesting that the ongoing decline in L&D units are worrisome, according to the authors. Of studies they cited, one showed nearly a 10% loss in rural L&D services in a recent 10-year period.

The authors also noted that about half of the 3,143 counties in the United States do not have a practicing obstetrician, and that fewer than 7% of obstetricians-gynecologists practice in rural settings.

In many rural counties, including the county where the lead author practices, family practitioners provide 100% of local obstetric care, but access to these clinicians also appears to be declining, according to the paper. The ratio of primary care physicians to patients is already lower in non-metropolitan than metropolitan areas (39.8 vs. 53.3). The American Board of Family Medicine has reported that fewer than 10% of family physicians now provide maternity care, the authors wrote.

"If a causal relationship does exist [between lack of L&D units and adverse perinatal outcomes], then rural populations would definitively benefit from having local access to a L&D unit," the authors stated.

The lead author, Dr. Waits, said in an interview that there are two obstacles to an increase in rural L&D units: malpractice premiums and reimbursement for indigent deliveries. The large malpractice premiums required to cover OB care are hurdles for caregivers, such as family physicians, as well as the hospitals where they practice.

Reforms from the legislative or regulatory perspective are needed to permit malpractice insurance to be issued at a reasonable cost, according to Dr. Waits. Such reforms are a "moral imperative" so that the malpractice issue is not allowed to "shipwreck infant and maternal mortality," he said.

Of the many potential solutions, such as increased use of telemedicine, legislative initiatives to reduce the malpractice burden, or new support and incentives for family physicians to deliver OB care, each is burdened with obstacles to overcome, according to Dr. Waits. This does not mean these solutions should not be pursued alone or together, but he made it clear that the no solution is easy. In the meantime, Dr. Waits indicated a need to consider practical and immediate strategies to fix the problem.

"There should be incentives for rural emergency departments and ambulance systems to train in the [American Academy of Family Physicians'] Basic Life Support in Obstetrics (BLSO) certification courses each year. I am not aware of any specific evidence around this, but it is a known fact that, when L&Ds close, institutional memory of OB emergencies recede, and preparedness suffers," he said.

Dr. Cullen agreed that if the closing of L&D units explains the higher rate of perinatal mortality in rural areas, both short-term and long-term solutions are needed.

"Every community must have a plan for obstetric and newborn emergencies. The decision to not offer maternity care means that rural providers will still provide maternity care but not be ready for emergencies," he said, echoing a point made by Dr. Waits.

The study authors disclosed no conflicts. Dr. Cullen reported having no disclosures.

SOURCE: Waits JB et al. Ann Fam Med. 2020;18:446-51.

This article originally appeared on MDedge.com, part of the Medscape Professional Network.

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