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Why do so many U.S. mothers die or almost die from childbirth?

Sometimes everyone is so focused on the baby that they overlook serious threats to the mother’s health. Every year, about 800 U.S. women die from complications of pregnancy and childbirth, and another 65,000 suffer near-death medical emergencies. About half of these calamities occur after the baby is born.

Many moms who lived to tell the tale say they were not properly educated on the risks or the signs of life-threatening conditions. Research suggests that many of the nurses who should be teaching this are not adequately trained on maternal health care.

New Moms Are Not Well Informed About The Risks

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) estimates 700 to 900 annual deaths – two or three every day – from pregnancy- and childbirth-related causes. Another 65,000 women nearly die, with African-American and rural mothers at highest risk.

An analysis by the CDC Foundation concluded that 60 percent of maternal deaths are preventable. That includes negligence of health care providers failing to monitor the mother’s health during childbirth, failing to take new mothers seriously when they report symptoms, or simply failing to educate patients about the dangers. Among the most severe risks:

  • Pre-eclampsia (pregnancy-related high blood pressure)
  • Hemorrhage (uncontrolled bleeding)
  • Pulmonary embolism (blood clots in the lungs)
  • Bowel obstruction related to C-section surgery
  • Heart attack or stroke
  • Blood infection

Countless women who experienced near-death conditions postpartum were not believed (or even sent back home) when they complained of chest pain, headaches, abdominal pain, shortness of breath, and other dire symptoms. Some persisted until they got a doctor or nurse to listen. Some came in through the emergency room –  unconscious, bleeding or writhing in pain – before they were diagnosed and treated.

Nurses Need Better Training On Maternal Health Dangers

A nationwide study of obstetric and neonatal nurses revealed the field is not well equipped to advise new mothers on threats to their health. Many of those surveyed said they usually spent 10 minutes or less talking to new moms about the range of potential medical complications. Nurses felt least confident warning about heart-related problems – which are the leading cause of maternal deaths!

This is worrisome because nurses are the last line of defense. Most new mothers don’t see their own doctors for four to six weeks – the same time period when women are most likely to suffer life-threatening complications of childbirth. Moms are on their own without the ability to even recognize the warning signs.

In Georgia and New Jersey, two states with high maternal fatalities, a nursing association tried to gauge the education gap. Researchers found that the scant information new moms did receive about their own health risks was often inconsistent or flat-out wrong. They suggest targeted education – checklists, handouts, clear instructions – that mothers and their caregivers can absorb in a short talk and take with them for home reference.

We can do much better for moms

The United States has among of the highest rates of infant mortality and maternal mortality of the industrial nations. It’s not for lack of medical facilities or health care spending. But there is a need for better education, communication and follow-up.

Source: If you hemorrhage, don’t clean up: Advice from mothers who almost died (Propublica.org)

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