It may read like a fake news headline, but it’s true. The U.S is now the most dangerous place to give birth in the developing world. More than 50,000 women are injured during childbirth each year, and about 700 die, according to an extensive report conducted by USA Today. That makes giving birth here riskier than in Germany, France, England, Japan, or Canada. (Not helping matters is Serena Williams’ birth story, which made headlines earlier this year.) Equally, if not more, alarming is that fact that from 1990-2015 the number of maternal deaths in those other countries has either remained the same or dropped, while here it’s increased dramatically.
So what the hell is going on? The USA Today report points to hospitals’ negligence when it comes to simple procedures, which ultimately lead to death or injury that could otherwise be easily prevented. That includes proper and timely treatment of things such as high blood pressure (a leading cause of maternal death and strokes), as well as hemorrhaging and extreme blood loss. Per the report, these issues occurred in hospitals nationwide, both smaller, community ones and major medical centers with access to the latest technology. The one exception: California, where maternal death rates have fallen by fifty percent. (They’ve continued to climb across the rest of the country.) Why the difference? Hospitals and safety experts in the Golden State implement standard care practices — set policies, procedures, and checklists — which other states do not.
It’s this irregular care and lack of standardized protocol that contributes to the otherwise preventable maternal deaths. In an attempt to compensate for this, several leading medical societies formed the Alliance for Innovation on Maternal Health Program (AIM) in 2014. AIM formalized treatment policies, training programs, and safety equipment that every and any maternity hospital should have (one example: set timing for blood pressure readings). Still, only about 40 percent of the birthing hospitals in the U.S. are currently enrolled in AIM.
There are obviously risks associated with childbirth, and these stats are admittedly scary. But it’s important to keep things in perspective and remember that death during childbirth or the postpartum period is still rare, and most complications can easily be treated or prevented, points out Beth Battaglino, RN, a registered labor and delivery nurse and the founder of HealthyWomen. She says she has seen a noticeable change in how women are cared for, both during labor and after: “More standardized protocols are being worked on now. There’s been a major shift in how we monitor moms with a whole new regimen for how we check blood pressure, for example. Women on the labor and delivery and postpartum floors are being monitored more regularly and more closely.”
So, if you’re pregnant and reading this, resist the urge to freak out, and focus instead on taking the proper precautions pre-delivery. Battaglino emphasizes the importance of regular prenatal appointments, during which you can discuss any pre-existing conditions with your doctor; many of these are what pose potential problems during delivery, such as a history of blood clots or high blood pressure. Secondly, as soon as you are checked into the hospital to give birth, give your OB-GYN a quick rundown of your medical history. “They may not have checked your file thoroughly, or maybe something in there didn’t jump out at them, so it’s always good to make sure they didn’t miss anything,” notes Battaglino.
Finally, above all, go with your gut. If you think something is wrong, don’t ignore it or let someone ignore you. “It’s important to note that the definition of maternal mortality applies to the entire period of pregnancy, labor and delivery, and 42 days after delivery,” says Battaglino. That means that issues can still occur once you leave the hospital, so it’s crucial to listen to your body and call your doctor ASAP if something feels off. At the end of the day — as with most health-related issues — it’s imperative to be your own best advocate.