Hospital management practices may put women at risk for C-sections, complications during childbirth


For immediate release: July 11, 2017

Boston, MA ─ The way certain hospital labor and delivery units are managed may put healthy women at greater risk for cesarean deliveries and hemorrhage, according to a new study from Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health researchers and colleagues.

The study, which was published online July 11, 2017 in Obstetrics and Gynecology, is the first to link management of unit culture, nursing, and patient flow to maternal health outcomes.

“It is hard to predict when women will go into labor, how long labor will take, and which women may require critical resources like the operating room or blood bank. The way managers address this uncertainty appears to be an independent risk factor for a woman getting a C-section,” said senior author Neel Shah, an obstetrician and Harvard Chan School researcher who leads the Delivery Decisions Initiative at Ariadne Labs, a joint center of Harvard Chan School and Brigham and Women’s Hospital.

Maternal health outcomes vary dramatically across hospitals, including 10-fold variation in cesarean delivery rates. Previous research has demonstrated that this hospital-level variation is not well explained by women’s health or preferences. In just one generation, the U.S. has seen a 500% increase in the number of C-sections, placing women at significant risk for surgical complications. Cesarean deliveries are associated with increased rates of severe morbidity (such as hemorrhage or infection), longer hospitalizations, and greater average costs than vaginal deliveries—and approximately 45% of these procedures may be avoidable, according to the study.

To conduct the study, lead author Avery Plough, an Ariadne Labs researcher, interviewed 118 nurse and physician managers at 53 diverse hospitals about three areas of management: (1) unit culture management, including practices that facilitate communication and collaboration among staff; (2) nursing management, including practices that ensure appropriate nurse staffing levels; and (3) patient flow management, including practices that adjust resources to accommodate surges in patient arrival. Hospitals were categorized as having either “reactive” management practices that address management problems as they occur or “proactive” management practices that pre-emptively mitigate challenges before they arise.

The study looked at how those management practices affected the health of low-risk women having their first child. The results showed that women receiving care at hospitals with the most proactive unit culture management had a higher risk of cesarean delivery, postpartum hemorrhage, blood transfusion, and prolonged hospital length of stay. These counterintuitive findings may indicate that managers at these hospitals are focused on achieving different goals, such as neonatal outcomes or financial performance, which are not always aligned with maternal wellbeing.

The research is an important cornerstone of Shah’s Delivery Decisions Initiative at Ariadne Labs to identify the key drivers of dangerously high C-section rates and to develop a health system-level solution to the problem.

Support for this study came from Rx Foundation.

“Relationship Between Labor and Delivery Unit Management Practices and Maternal Outcomes,” Avery C. Plough, Grace Galvin, Zhonghe Li, Stuart R. Lipsitz, Shehnaz Alidina, Natalie J. Henrich, Lisa R. Hirschhorn, William R. Berry, Atul A. Gawande, Doris Peter, Rory McDonald, Donna L. Caldwell, Janet H. Muri, Debra Bingham, Aaron B. Caughey, Eugene R. Declercq, Neel T. Shah, Obstetrics and Gynecology, July 11, doi: 10.1097/AOG.0000000000002128

For more information:

Todd Datz

Deborah O’Neil
Ariadne Labs


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Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health brings together dedicated experts from many disciplines to educate new generations of global health leaders and produce powerful ideas that improve the lives and health of people everywhere. As a community of leading scientists, educators, and students, we work together to take innovative ideas from the laboratory to people’s lives—not only making scientific breakthroughs, but also working to change individual behaviors, public policies, and health care practices. Each year, more than 400 faculty members at Harvard Chan School teach 1,000-plus full-time students from around the world and train thousands more through online and executive education courses. Founded in 1913 as the Harvard-MIT School of Health Officers, the School is recognized as America’s oldest professional training program in public health.