Docs In Training Confide Their Feelings On Performing Abortions

Opponents and supporters of an abortion bill hold signs outside the Texas Capitol on July 9 in Austin. (Eric Gay/AP)

Opponents and supporters of an abortion bill hold signs outside the Texas Capitol July 9 in Austin. (Eric Gay/AP)

Abortion can be hard for the patient. But it can also cause turmoil for the doctor performing the procedure.

Janet Singer, a nurse midwife on the faculty of Brown University’s obstetrics-gynecology residency program, found herself acting as a confidant in many discussions with residents about abortion.

“Over the years, when a resident felt confused, overwhelmed or thrilled about something to do with abortion care, they often came to me to discuss it,” she says.

Tricky questions continued to arise: Where does life actually begin? How do doctors’ personal beliefs play out in their clinical care? And, what’s really best for mothers?



Singer thought the general public would benefit from hearing more about the complexities of the young doctors’ experiences. So she asked four residents to write about their feelings about abortion training and services, or as one resident characterized it: “one of the most life-changing interventions we can offer.”

These personal stories are published in the July issue of the Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology, headlined: “Four Residents’ Narratives on Abortion Training: A Residency Climate of Reflection, Support, and Mutual Respect.”

I asked Singer to offer a bit more background on the project, and here, edited, is her response, followed by some excerpts from the residents’ narratives:

Janet Singer: The abortion debate in the U.S. is so divisive, making everything seem black and white; but the real life experiences of doctors and women are much more complex. I am a nurse midwife and though personally committed to increasing access to abortion services, I believe that abortion is not a black and white issue. I speak openly about my personal beliefs with the obstetric residents I work with.

My thinking about the grey areas surrounding abortion care are the result of many conversations with colleagues and residents. One came to me overwhelmed on a day when she had done a late-term abortion and then been called to an emergency C-section for a fetus/baby just a week further along.

She needed to talk about how overwhelming it felt to try to decide where the cusp of life was, why it was OK to take one fetus/baby out of the womb so it wouldn’t live and one out so it might.  Continue reading

OB Talks About Home Birth, Midwives And Re-Engineering U.S. Maternity Care

Dr. Neel Shah (Courtesy)

Dr. Neel Shah (Courtesy)

Just mention the phrase “home birth,” and controversy will surely follow.

One example: a recent opinion piece in the New England Journal of Medicine by Dr. Neel Shah, an obstetrician at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston. In the piece, Shah suggests that for many pregnant women, giving birth in the U.K. — with its streamlined system of midwives and greater acceptance of births in the home — may be better than the high-intervention childbirth system that dominate U.S. labor wards.

Shah wrote the piece in response to the release of new guidelines from the U.K.’s National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE), recommending healthy women with low-risk pregnancies opt for home or midwife-led births. Shah’s conclusion? “The majority of women with straightforward pregnancies may truly be better off in the United Kingdom.” In other words, the intense treatment U.S. obstetricians are trained to provide is unnecessary in many cases.

Dr. Shah continued the conversation on Radio Boston earlier this week. Highlights from the segment include his analysis of why the U.S. and U.K. have such different approaches to childbirth and discussion of the possible movement towards a model more like the U.K. Listen to the segment or read an excerpt below:

Host Meghna Chakrabarti: You also point out in your piece — and we spoke with people in preparing for this conversation — that these are relatively new recommendations, and the vast majority of women in the U.K. as of today still have their babies in hospitals there.

Dr. Neel Shah: They do. So about 90 percent of babies in the UK are born in hospitals, although I’ll say that the model even for babies born in hospitals is that midwives provide the first level of care and the obstetricians are there for complexity, even if you’re in the hospital. But here it’s more like 99 out of 100, so there’s still a big difference.

MC: But how do we change that, though? If in the U.K., from what you’re describing, it seems that obstetricians are viewed upon as highly trained specialists who should be called on in the event of specialty care when it’s needed, and midwives provide more of the primary care. It feels like we don’t have that framework here in the United States. When a woman gets pregnant, her first thought is “I need to go see an obstetrician to provide what’s essentially primary care during a pregnancy.”

NS: That’s exactly right. I think there’s a few different things that we could do to move forward. There are a lot of strategies and, like I said in the piece, I think there are lessons in the U.K., but I think our model will obviously need to look different from the U.K. One of the things I think we should start to think about is health care systems in 2015 in the United States are starting to take responsibility for populations and trying to think about not just the surgery but your health care overall. And 25 percent of all hospitalizations are childbirth related; it’s the number one reason to come into the hospital. So it seems like this should be a big piece of the pie, and I think as big health systems start to take ownership over the health of people that they serve there’s an opportunity to reinvent and re-engineer the way we approach it.

MC: Let’s take a couple more calls. Emily is calling from Westford; you’re on the air, Emily.

Emily: Hi. Thank you for taking my call, and I’m thrilled that Dr. Shah is young and freshly out of medical school and doing what he’s doing. My experience was very different. I was 30 and 34 when I had my two children, and I worked with midwives both times in the Boston area. The first was Beth Israel’s Ambulatory Care Unit, and the two midwives there were ex-nuns, and they were both at the birth, and the obstetrician actually took pictures; he had nothing to do with the birth, which was great. And then the next one, four years later, was in Beverly, at the North Shore Birth Center, which was a house setting across the driveway from the hospital. So both of them were under the umbrellas of the hospital. Now I have to say this was in 1979 and 1983, but I was starting at an OB/GYN practice, and a friend of mine said, “You know, the OBs look for the abnormal. When you go to a midwife, they’re looking for the normal.” And I felt that was so true because all my appointments with my husband with me were an hour and a half at the midwife. Continue reading

Why A U.S. Obstetrician Says Some Women May Be Better Off Having Baby In U.K.

Despite the fact that we all go through it, birth remains a fraught topic. Everyone, it seems, has an opinion on the ideal place, position and method of childbirth, and those views can be unshakable.

Into this prickly arena steps Dr. Neel Shah, an obstetrician at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston and assistant professor at Harvard Medical School. In a smart, nuanced and provocative opinion piece in the current New England Journal of Medicine on the cultural and systemic differences between giving birth in the United Kingdom compared to the United States, Shah suggests what might seem like heresy to some in his field: “The majority of women with straightforward pregnancies,” he writes, “may be better off in the United Kingdom.”

Dr. Neel Shah (Courtesy)

Dr. Neel Shah (Courtesy)

Why write about this now? The U.K.’s National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) recently issued new guidelines saying that healthy women with uncomplicated, low-risk pregnancies are “safer giving birth at home or in a midwife-led unit than in a hospital under the supervision of an obstetrician.” When the recommendations came out, Shah notes, “eyebrows went up. The New York Times editorial board (and others) wondered ‘Are midwives safer than doctors.’ How can hospitals be safer than homes?”

Before you, too, reject Shah’s conclusion out of hand, consider the careful thinking behind it and the larger context, which is that one in three births are now carried out by cesarean section — major abdominal surgery — and that C-sections are the most commonly performed surgery on the planet. But Shah’s argument focuses more on the vastly different medical cultures involved: “At its core,” he writes, “this debate is not about the superiority of midwives over doctors or hospitals over homes. It is about treatment intensity and when enough is enough. Nearly all Americans are currently born in settings that are essentially intensive care units: labor floors have multi-paneled telemetry monitors, medications that require minute-by-minute titration, and some of the highest staffing ratios in the hospital. Most labor floors are more intensive than other ICUs in that they contain their own operating rooms. Surely, every birth does not require an ICU.”

I asked Shah to lay out the key points of his piece. Here they are, edited:

RZ: Why do you conclude that it may be safer for women to give birth in the U.K. rather than the U.S.?

NS: I think the biggest takeaway from this piece is that there are harms from doing too much just like there are harms from doing not enough and that’s a big paradigm shift in U.S. health care. Childbirth is one of the biggest illustrations of that: We err on the side of overdoing it and for the healthy majority, we end up causing a lot of harm from overdoing it in the interest of making it safe for the high-risk minority.

People think that C-sections are like a rip cord — they are if you are truly at risk. But if you are low-risk, C-sections have a lot of bad consequences. Major complications such as hemorrhage, severe infection and organ injury are three times as likely to occur with cesarean deliveries as they are with vaginal deliveries. But even more fundamentally: you could go home with a 12-centimeter incision with a newborn or you could go home without a 12-centimeter incision and a newborn….moms are resilient so they just deal with it but that has a major impact. Continue reading

Differing Views On Antidepressants During Pregnancy

The question of taking antidepressants during pregnancy is extremely intimate and complicated. Research studies evaluating the risks and benefits are mixed. There are documented harms, like an elevated risk of pre-term birth. But there are also the documented harms of untreated depression. In other words, it’s a deeply personal health decision that requires judgement based on a body of data that offers no easy answers.

The latest on this fraught debate comes from Andrew Solomon who wrote a long piece published in last Sunday’s New York Times Magazine, “The Secret Sadness,” with this basic message: “Pregnant women who are depressed often fear taking the medication they rely on. But not treating their depression can be just as dangerous.”

Solomon, whose own depression is well documented in his powerful book, “The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression,” (The Times piece will be added as a new chapter in the book) begins the magazine article with an anecdote about Mary Guest, “a lively, accomplished 37-year-old woman” who “fell in love, became pregnant and married after a short courtship.”

Struggling with depression for much of her life, Mary took various antidepressant and anti-anxiety drugs, Solomon writes, but decided to discontinue the meds during pregnancy. But Mary’s mood and behavior “spiraled downward” so, “near the end of her fifth month of pregnancy, she finally, reluctantly, resumed taking an antidepressant,” he writes.

Then, at six-and-a-half months pregnant, and convinced that something was wrong with her fetus, Mary “went to the 16th floor of the building where her parents lived and jumped to her death.” Solomon quotes Mary’s mother saying: “We feel, rightly or wrongly, that if Mary had stayed on her medications, or even gone back on them sooner, it’s possible she would have survived.”

It’s an intense, moving story.

But Dr. Adam Urato, an assistant professor at Tufts University School of Medicine in Boston and a maternal-fetal medicine physician at Tufts Medical Center and MetroWest Medical Center in Framingham, says he’s got an important story to tell too: that antidepressants can also cause harm. Urato writes and lectures on this topic frequently, and says he feels that Solomon’s piece didn’t offer the complete picture. (Here’s Urato’s full rebuttal to Solomon’s article on the website Mad In America, published by journalist Robert Whitaker.

Solomon quotes Urato in the Times story (in fact, some of the quotes come from a post Urato wrote for CommonHealth). But Urato says his views weren’t fully reflected. Here, edited are a few of Urato’s points:

1. Anecdotes Have Limitations

No one wants a pregnant woman to kill herself. An article in which pregnant women stop their medications and kill themselves while others continue on their meds and have happy outcomes is sure to push readers in an obvious direction. However, such anecdotes are limited.

For example, the author could have told stories of women who stayed on their medications, weren’t counseled regarding the risks, and had severely impaired babies. Continue reading

Expecting, But Not This: Prenatal Blood Tests Can Reveal Moms’ Health Problems

(Flickr Creative Commons)

(Flickr Creative Commons)

Since 2011, well over a million pregnant women have chosen to use new, non-invasive prenatal tests that let them check the chromosomes of the fetus they carry with just a blood draw, avoiding the risks of an invasive procedure like an amniocentesis.

But recently, it has become clear that these new, non-invasive tests, which aim to test fragments of fetal DNA floating in the mother’s blood, can produce a surprising side effect: unlooked-for findings that the mothers — not the babies — have chromosome anomalies, or even cancer.

According to a commentary just out in the journal Nature, as of late last year, “at least 26 pregnant women with abnormal blood-test results later learned that they had cancer.” To cite a recent Buzzfeed headline: “Pregnant women are finding out they have cancer from a genetic test of their babies.” Dr. Diana Bianchi, executive director of the Mother Infant Research Institute at Tufts Medical Center, writes in Nature:

Parents, obstetricians and physicians have been taken by surprise. Consent forms used by test providers rarely mention the possibility of findings concerning the mother’s health. And caregivers have little guidance on what to do when such findings arise. Test providers need to rethink their consent forms to prevent unwarranted confusion and anxiety — not least, women deciding to terminate their pregnancies on the basis of wrong interpretations of test results.

Dr. Bianchi’s comments are aimed mainly at the medical world, but I asked her what her message was to the many pregnant women out there who may get DNA findings that raise concerns. Her bottom line: “Slow down. Pregnancy is a very emotional time. Get the information you need, take a deep breath.”

(For help slowing down, pregnant women might read this incisive report by Beth Daley of the New England Center for Investigative Reporting on how the accuracy of prenatal DNA tests is oversold and often misunderstood.)

Pregnant women need to know that when their blood is being drawn for testing on their baby, their own DNA is being tested as well.

Beyond caution on the test findings, Dr. Bianchi said, “I think that pregnant women need to know that when their blood is being drawn for testing on their baby, that their own DNA is being tested as well, and oftentimes that is not mentioned as part of the pre-test counseling, if any pre-test counseling is occurring.”

So, I asked, there is a small chance that there could be some incidental finding – either that they have cancer, or that they may have a sex chromosome abnormality?

Yes. The maternal incidental findings are quite rare, but some of them have medical significance, such as finding a tumor that the woman didn’t know that she had. In other situations, women who are pregnant are very surprised to find out that they themselves have a chromosome abnormality.

Would that matter very much? Continue reading

Laughing Gas For Labor Pain May Be Regaining Popularity In U.S.

ABC News reports a resurgence in the use of laughing gas for labor pain. (Not to toot our own horn, but we reported this back in 2010 here at CommonHealth and did a podcast on it in 2013.)

ABC suggests the practice may be gaining popularity since 2011, when “the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved new nitrous oxide equipment for delivery room use.”

Quoting Dr. William Camann, director of obstetric anesthetics at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, the ABC piece continues:

labor pain

“Maybe 10 years ago, less than five or 10 hospitals used it [for women in labor],” Camann…told ABC News. “Now, probably several hundred. It’s really exploded. Many more hospitals are expressing interest.”

He added the gas popular in dentists’ offices has an “extraordinary safety record” in delivery rooms outside the U.S. But more studies are needed to confirm its safety, other doctors say. Continue reading

Study Of 80,000 Birthing Moms Suggests Epidurals Safer Than Thought

(archibald jude via Compfight)

(archibald jude via Compfight)

I subscribe to the dentistry school of birthing babies. That is, I wouldn’t want to get a tooth filled without Novocaine, and I wouldn’t want to have a baby without an epidural.

I know that opinions — strong ones — vary on this, but for those of my ilk who’d like yet another data point to support the pain-relief side, here it is: A national study, one of the biggest yet, of complications from epidurals has just been presented at the annual conference of the American Society of Anesthesiologists now under way in New Orleans. And it suggests that epidurals are even safer than previously thought, with rates of the most-feared complications well under 1 percent.

Dr. Samir Jani, a senior resident in anesthesiology at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, presented the findings, gleaned from a giant national database of anesthesiology cases, the National Anesthesia Clinical Outcomes Registry.

He found that among more than 80,000 cases of anesthesia during labor and delivery, 2,223 involved complications, for an overall rate of 2.78 percent. But most of those concerned medication errors — over-dosing, under-dosing, or use of expired drugs.

The rate of the complications that many women fear most — nerve damage or an excruciating “spinal headache” — were even lower than previously estimated, Dr. Jani said: .2 percent — that’s 2/10 of one percent — for the headache; .002 percent for spinal nerve damage and .14 percent for damage to other nerves.

“So it’s well under 1 percent for the kinds of complications that I think a lot of women worry about,” he said, not the 1-2 percent that he’s been quoting his patients based on textbook teachings.

An awkward question: But don’t anesthesiologists tend to be pretty pro-anesthesia? Mightn’t that bias the results?

“Actually,” Dr. Jani said, “Whenever I talk to all my patients, I tell them, ‘I’m not here to sell you an epidural. it’s your ultimate decision.’ And I think that that’s the mentality that almost all of us have. We aren’t ever going to force on a patient what they don’t want. But in that informed consent process, it’s important we quote not only possible complications but the rates to the best of our knowledge. At the end of the day, it’s good to be able to tell your patient that this is a safe and efficient method to be able to control labor pain.”

And what about the common belief that getting an epidural can hinder the pushing process in labor? Continue reading

When One Twin Baby Lives But The Other Dies

(stitches1975 via compfight)

(stitches1975 via compfight)

By Dr. Karen O’Brien
Guest contributor

Never before in my obstetric practice have I taken care of so many twin pregnancies. What I witness in my own office is part of a nationwide trend: Over the last two decades, the twin birth rate in the United States rose 76 percent, from 19 to 33 per 1,000 births.

And never before have I taken care of so many twin pregnancies with complications.

The specific complication that has given me pause in the last year or two is the loss of one twin, either during or after pregnancy.

This doesn’t happen often, but I have taken care of a number of patients recently who have lost a twin during or shortly after pregnancy. And I’ve learned that though outsiders might see a glass half full, this experience is uniquely devastating, both emotionally and medically.

We must all understand that the life of one twin does not eradicate grief for the sibling who died.

The hope and anticipation of bringing home two healthy babies comes grinding to a halt. The joy of delivery is clouded by sibling loss.

As early as 18 weeks, Melissa’s identical twins showed signs of a complication called twin-to-twin transfusion syndrome, which occurs when one of the twins essentially donates blood to the other.

At 19 weeks, Melissa underwent surgery to try to correct the problem. Unfortunately, two days after the surgery, one of the twins passed away. Melissa remained pregnant for 13 more weeks and ultimately underwent cesarean section at 32 weeks.

She and her husband were able to hold the deceased twin for several hours after delivery. Her live twin did well; she spent a few weeks in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) and is now home and thriving.

Samantha’s twins were not identical, and were conceived through in vitro fertilization. At 14 weeks, we found that one of the twins, a boy, had several serious abnormalities. Even at that early gestational age, we knew that he would not live for long after birth, and might pass away during the pregnancy. The other twin, a girl, appeared normal throughout the pregnancy. Continue reading

Childbirth Complications: Some Hospitals Have 5 Times More, But Which Ones?



By Richard Knox

The risk of a major complication of childbirth can be up to five times higher at one hospital versus another, a new study finds. But there’s no way expectant mothers can tell the high-risk hospitals from the low — at least, not yet.

A study in this month’s Health Affairs is the first ever to examine hospitals’ childbirth complication rates on a national basis. Authors looked at a representative sample of more than 750,000 deliveries that took place in 2010 at hospitals large and small, urban and rural, including both teaching and community institutions.

Major complications include hemorrhaging, infections, vaginal lacerations and blood clots. Unlike major complications from, say, cardiac surgery, these obstetrical glitches are not generally life-threatening.

On the other hand, as Dr. Laurent Glance, the study’s lead author, tells CommonHealth: “The vast majority of women of childbearing age are fairly healthy people. They can reasonably expect to have a baby without any complications.”

The study found that for women delivering vaginally, the risk of a major complication can be more than double at a “low-performing” hospital (23 percent) than a “high-performing” institution (10 percent).

When it comes to cesarean deliveries, the disparities are even greater — 21 percent at a low-performing hospital versus a little over 4 percent at a high-performing obstetrical unit.

The study doesn’t provide Massachusetts-specific complication rates, but the researchers found no significant differences between Northeast hospitals and other regions. “It’s reasonable to assume there is a similar amount of variation [among Massachusetts hospitals], but we can’t say for sure,” Glance says.

If you think of the results in a big-picture way, it means that among the roughly 4 million American births a year, hundreds of thousands of women could avoid childbirth complications if somehow low-performing hospitals could raise their outcomes to those of their betters. Extrapolating from the new study, about 520,000 new mothers suffer a major complication.

The wide disparities in childbirth complications care are especially striking when you consider how big a slice obstetrics represents of the total health care pie. Continue reading

Study: Pregnant Women Hungry For Better Info Earlier On

Pregnancy test (Wikimedia Commons)

Pregnancy test (Wikimedia Commons)

The “+” sign pops up on your pregnancy test. You call the office of the obstetrician you’ve chosen for just this eventuality, and the receptionist congratulates you and sets you an appointment four or six or eight weeks away.  “But,” you think, “I have so many questions now!” The books aren’t enough. So you turn, of course, to Google, and navigate the thickets of information alone.

If this was your pregnancy experience and it struck you as odd or off or wrong, you’re not alone, according to a recent small study that likely reflects a far broader opinion. Writes one pregnant friend: “My docs are wonderful and insanely knowledgeable, and I call them for the big stuff. However, there’s so much little stuff when you’re pregnant, especially for the first time. It’s constant googling, is this normal? Everything from symptoms, food, exercise routines, massages, whether to dye your hair – it’s endless.”

And some things you need to know early, she notes. “I did have the books – I found the Mayo Clinic guide to a healthy pregnancy to be quite good. But, not so easily searchable, especially when you’re at dinner and you’re like, ‘Can I eat xyz?’ My husband downloaded a few apps right away that allow you to search what you can eat, what to avoid. Some are obvious: alcohol, sushi, some way less so – um, lunch meat?”

From the study’s press release:

Pregnant women are using the Internet to seek answers to their medical questions more often than they would like, say Penn State researchers.

“We found that first-time moms were upset that their first prenatal visit did not occur until eight weeks into pregnancy,” said Jennifer L. Kraschnewski, assistant professor of medicine and public health sciences, Penn State College of Medicine. “These women reported using Google and other search engines because they had a lot of questions at the beginning of pregnancy, before their first doctor’s appointment.” Continue reading