Complications & Death Are Sharply Rising in Hospital Births & No One Knows Why

woman in labor
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Many hospitals have made a number of changes in recent years with the goal of making the birth experience better. They've introduced baby-friendly initiatives, and some have even added special birthing suites to try to mimic the natural, home birth experience that many women want. But despite efforts to improve birth, more and more women are experiencing severe complications and even dying, and a new report shows the problem is only getting worse.

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report released by the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ) this week shows that the proportion of women who experienced serious complications while giving birth in US hospitals rose 45 percent between 2006 and 2015, from 101 per 10,000 hospital deliveries in 2006 to 147 per 10,000 deliveries in 2015. 

Even more troubling, although deaths from severe complications increased for all races and ethnicities, the in-hospital mortality rate was three times higher for black women than for white women in 2015. The risk of severe complications was also higher at hospitals that serve vulnerable populations, which primarily serve minorities, at teaching hospitals, and at public hospitals.

On social media, plenty of women called out their suspected reasons for the rise in complications and shared their own birth stories. One woman pointed the finger at unnecessary interventions.

rise in birth complications
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Others said staff shortages are the issue.

Rise in birth complications
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But the real culprit is a combination of factors, some of which are still unknown. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), increases in maternal morbidity can be attributed to increases in maternal age, the high US C-section rate, and a rise in preexisting conditions. Per the AHRQ report, the rate of severe maternal morbidity was highest among women aged 40+ (248 per 10,000 deliveries) and lowest for those aged 20 to 29 (136 per 10,000 deliveries). However, women who were younger than 20 had a higher rate of complications than those who are 20 to 29. Advanced maternal age and preexisting conditions cannot account for all of the data, especially the disturbing racial and socioeconomic disparities in the numbers.

This is not the first report to show that the medical establishment is failing moms. The US has the highest maternal mortality rate of any developed nation. Even though there's no "smoking gun" we can easily point to as the source of the problem, Nicole Fisher, founder and CEO of HHR Strategies, a health care and human rights-focused advising firm, wrote in Forbes that "the findings should serve as a noteworthy wake-up call for the country's health care system and unambiguously note a need for hospitals to better integrate teamwork and safety culture training strategies into labor and delivery."

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