Obstetric Care Under Threat in Rural Areas

Diana Swift

October 18, 2021

Ready access to maternity services in rural areas is not a given, yet access to obstetric hospitals is associated with decreased rates of preterm birth and neonatal/perinatal mortality. 

Little is known, however, about the availability of obstetric centers with respect to birth volume, geographic distribution among states, proximity of obstetric hospitals, and urban adjacency.

Dr Sara Handley

"This knowledge is fundamental to inform clinical and policy efforts to optimize perinatal regionalization, care delivery, and outcomes," wrote Sara C. Handley, MD, MSCE, of the Roberts Center for Pediatric Research at the Children 's Hospital of Philadelphia, and colleagues, who undertook to fill that information gap in a study. It was published online Oct. 8 in JAMA Network Open.

Her group found birth volumes varied among obstetric hospitals, with many low-volume facilities located in rural, even isolated, areas, which suggests a need to ensure better access to perinatal care for women in these locations.

Using American Hospital Association data, the researchers examined the birth volumes and geographic distributions of 3,207 maternity hospitals from 2010 to 2018. In a cohort of 34,054,951 births, 56.8% occurred in high-volume obstetric facilities, and 37.4% in low-volume hospitals. Among the latter, 18.9% were isolated in location and not within 30 miles of any other obstetric hospital.

Most infants (19,327,487) were born in hospitals with more than 2,000 births per year, the study found, but a substantial 2,528,259, or 7.4%, were born in low-volume centers reporting 10 to 500 births annually.

"We were surprised by the number of low-volume hospitals and the number of births in low-volume hospitals," Handley said in an interview. Many low-volume hospitals are in rural areas, which may require patients to drive long distances. These hospitals are at high risk of closure and such closures may further increase travel time.

Among low-volume hospitals, 23.9% were within the study proximity threshold of 30 miles of a hospital with more than 2,000 deliveries per year. "And when you 're in labor, even 30 miles is a long drive," Handley said.

According to the authors, these findings highlight the need to balance care availability and sufficient patient volume by ensuring access and referral to high-quality perinatal care. They suggest perinatal care regionalization policies need review to improve maternal and infant outcomes.

But although the need is pressing, meeting it will not happen quickly, Handley said. "Change will require buy-in from multiple stakeholders and investment at many levels."

Dr Anne Banfield

The American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology has previously raised the alarm about general health disparities among women in underserved rural communities.

Anne L. Banfield, MD, director of women 's health services at Davis Medical Center in the mountain town of Elkins, W.V., is one obstetrician/gynecologist who is all too familiar with the problem of shrinking perinatal facilities. "Closures have impacted services," she said in an interview, noting that one hospital in her region closed its birthing unit because of financial considerations. "The next closest facility to ours is 20 miles to the west and more than 60 miles in any other direction," she said. "And geography can create challenges. Because we 're located in the mountains, it can take 2 hours to get to our facility."

The hope is that these findings will inform discussions on regionalization policy for perinatal care to improve maternal and infant outcomes and address concerns about isolated obstetric hospitals, the authors said.

Banfield emphasized that obstetric facilities should be made a priority even if they 're less profitable than other services and not a major contributor to the bottom line. But that will require rethinking reimbursement models to align with community needs. "Everyone has a mother – no one springs from a pod – but the fact is, we 're not paying enough for maternal health care," she said.

A top priority, she noted, is attracting sufficient staff; not only doctors, but also nurses and midwives with the skill sets required for perinatal care, which differ from those of general surgery and outpatient services. "We have to make financial changes to make this care feasible," Banfield said.

In similar recent research, a study published online in the October issue of Health Affairs, showed that with rural hospitals facing increased financial distress, they may merge with other hospitals/systems, potentially reducing service lines that are less profitable or that duplicate services offered by the acquiring institution. Among those often on the chopping block is perinatal care.

Dr Lan Liang

"Our analysis of rural hospital discharge data found that merged hospitals were more likely than independent hospitals to eliminate maternal, neonatal, and also surgical care," lead author Lan Liang, PhD, senior economist at the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ) in Rockville, Md., said in an interview. This finding was consistent with previous AHRQ research using hospital self-reports, she added.

The study sample comprised 172 rural hospitals that merged during the period 2009-2016 in 32 states and 549 nonmerged comparison hospitals. In the premerger period, 74.5% of hospitals that merged provided maternal/neonatal care. This percentage decreased to 61.1% in the postmerger period. In contrast, the percentage of comparison hospitals providing these services remained stable during both periods (64.3% and 65.1%, respectively).

After weighting and adjusting for variables, the researchers found that from the premerger period to 1 year post merger, the percentage of hospitals providing these services decreased by 6.7 percentage points more for merged than for comparison hospitals (P = .06).

In the second year post merger, the percentage of hospitals providing maternal/neonatal services decreased by 7.2 percentage points more for merged than for comparison hospitals (P = .09).

"We did not, however, see a reduction in the volume of maternity services in rural communities, which suggests that women are just traveling farther to give birth," Liang said.

Although mergers might salvage hospitals ' sustainability, the authors wrote, they do not necessarily mean that service lines are retained or that hospitals are as responsive to community needs as they were before the merger.

The analysis concluded that continuing access to maternal/neonatal care in rural areas is not a given. "Stakeholders, including payers, policy makers, and community-based organizations, need to monitor the availability of maternity services to ensure women have options in childbirth providers," Liang said.

She and her associates called for payer-supported, multi-stakeholder initiatives to transform rural health care to be both financially sustainable and responsive to population needs.

The study by Handley and colleagues was supported by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the Eunice Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD). Handley reported grants from the NIH outside of the submitted work. Several coauthors reported grants from, variously, the NIH, the NICHD, and the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ). The study by Liang and associates was supported by the AHRQ 's Center for Financing, Access, and Cost Trends, and the Healthcare Cost and Utilization Project. The authors disclosed no competing interests.

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


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