How to assess, treat and prevent these causes of death has been known for decades. In many cases, simple steps like washing hands, warming the baby with skin-to-skin care or treating high blood pressure would make all the difference.
Globally, childbirth has shifted from the home to health facilities where a skilled clinician could provide safer care. This should mean better care and better outcomes. In many places, however, encouraging women to deliver in health facilities, rather than at home, has not resulted in reduced mortality.
In too many places, facilities are unable to provide even the most basic care – like monitoring a laboring woman’s blood pressure – and women face lack of privacy, unhygienic conditions or even abuse by staff.
Progress on reducing maternal and newborn mortality and morbidity, it has become clear, requires improving and strengthening the capabilities and quality of care in primary care facilities that provide labor and delivery services. But how?
For the last three years, we ran one of the world’s largest maternal-newborn health trials in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh to see if we could reduce deaths by improving the quality of care in frontline facilities. These facilities, where most local women give birth, each averaged three to four deliveries a day, most of which were conducted by nurses. In the average front-line facility, we found that proper hand washing was completed in less than 1 percent of deliveries, and only 25 percent of women received the right medication to prevent postpartum bleeding. Overall, 11 of 18 essential birth practices were missing.
To improve performance and outcomes, we didn’t punish or fire staff.
The problems typically stemmed from lack of organization and coordination to make certain that staff had the supplies, training and supervision they needed. No method had been proved to make a large-scale difference. But we had a theory that coaching teams to implement key practices would help. We trained a group of nurses and doctors to coach birth attendants and managers to deliver the vital basics found in the World Health Organization’s Safe Childbirth Checklist: proper supplies and steps to prevent infection, identification and treatment of high blood pressure to prevent eclampsia and appropriate medication to prevent hemorrhage.
The result was significant progress, but still not quite enough. We confirmed marked improvement in care.
Birth attendants who had been performing just seven of 18 known lifesaving steps during childbirth now performed 13. We showed that it is possible to improve significantly the quality of care in low-resource settings. Yet the evidence showed that we needed to do more to achieve a large-scale reduction in mortality rates.
The effort can be difficult and discouraging. Effective health systems must be able to close nearly all gaps in care, including gaps in supplies and equipment, basic skills and capabilities, and communication and connections to higher-level health facilities for sick mothers and babies. The relationships between clinical leaders and front-line providers, and between providers and the families they serve, must be respectful and supportive.
There are no shortcuts. This is true everywhere in the world, whether in Florida, where Williams delivered, or in Uttar Pradesh, where we ran the BetterBirth intervention.
How do we get to this standard? We think the answer is not likely to be fundamentally different from what we attempted. We need to put in place mechanisms to identify the gaps at each facility and coach leaders and staff in closing them. But, as we observed, while our basic checklist provided the targets for improvement and a tool for organizing and reminding people of key steps, more was needed to accelerate change, including financial resources, political will and the dedication of leaders, providers and the community to demand progress.
We are closer than we have ever been to closing the gaps that account for most maternal and newborn mortality. We know that complications arise in childbirth for women everywhere. The good news is that we know what is needed to make childbirth safer. To improve the health and well-being of mothers and their newborns, we must translate that knowledge into reality in every facility around the world.
Katherine Semrau is director of the Ariadne Labs BetterBirth Program, an assistant professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and an associate epidemiologist in the division of global health equity at the Brigham and Women’s Hospital. Atul Gawande is executive director of Ariadne Labs, a professor at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and a surgeon at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. THE DAILY STAR publishes this commentary in collaboration with Project Syndicate © (www.project-syndicate.org).
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