U.S. hospitals are making major strides at clamping down on early deliveries of babies and instead letting Mother Nature take its course in response to growing pressure from employers, government officials and patient-safety advocates.
The Leapfrog Group, an employer-backed organization that tracks hospital safety and quality, published data Monday showing a sharp decrease in early-elective deliveries since 2010 nationwide and in California.
The rate of deliveries before 39 weeks without a medical reason fell to 4.6% last year compared with 17% in 2010 among nearly 1,000 U.S. hospitals that reported results. California hospitals showed similar progress, going from 14.7% in 2010 to 3% last year.
"This is a remarkable reduction," said Edward McCabe, chief medical officer at the March of Dimes, which has pushed hospitals to address the issue. "It involves changing the culture of the hospital and that is always very hard to do."
In early-elective deliveries, the potential complications to the baby range from breathing and feeding problems to infections. The rate of infant mortality, or death in the first year, rises by 50% for those early births compared to babies who reach full-term, research shows.
Scheduling for convenience also boosts the likelihood of a cesarean section, which raises the risk of complications for the mother. It's estimated these unnecessary early deliveries increase healthcare costs by as much as $1 billion annually.
There are still hospitals where the rate of early deliveries is still relatively high, at 20% and 30% of all births. About a third of the 969 hospitals that reported data are still above Leapfrog's target rate of 5%.
But the swift improvement overall stands out compared to efforts to fix other long-standing quality and cost problems inside hospitals. Despite public attention and industry efforts, the incidence of medical errors, preventable infections and readmissions often remains stubbornly high.
"Healthcare takes a long time to change," said Leah Binder, chief executive of Leapfrog, a nonprofit group in Washington. "This is one of the most extraordinary examples of progress in healthcare that I've seen in my career."
Leapfrog began publicly reporting this maternity data four years ago, and health-policy experts credit that exposure for spurring change. The Obama administration has just begun collecting this data from hospitals nationwide as part of patient-safety efforts under the Affordable Care Act.
In response to the heightened scrutiny, many hospitals have recently adopted "hard-stop" policies, banning doctors from scheduling deliveries prior to 39 completed weeks without a medical reason.
Some health insurers and government health programs have sought to hit hospitals and doctors in the wallet. In South Carolina, the state's Medicaid program and the BlueCross BlueShield health plan there stopped paying for early-elective deliveries.
South Carolina had one of the country's highest rates of early-elective deliveries in 2010, at 27.3%. Last year, the statewide average was under 5%, according to Leapfrog.
Binder said some hospitals have been reluctant to tackle the issue because admissions to the neonatal-intensive-care unit and longer stays are good for the bottom line. Leapfrog's data on individual hospitals is available at the group's website.
"It does populate the NICU and that is a profit center for hospitals," Binder said. "Unfortunately, we still don't have the right payment incentives to make this easy for hospitals to do."
St. Francis Medical Center of Lynwood said it saw a drop in those intensive-care admissions after adopting tougher rules about a year ago. Doctors must now get approval from the department chairman for an early delivery.
The hospital's rate of early-elective deliveries went from 24% in 2012 to less than 9% last year, according to Leapfrog's data.
Dr. Wilburn Durousseau, chairman of the obstetrics and gynecology department at St. Francis, said he usually reviews one or two requests each week. He said it can be an adjustment for doctors who were taught that delivering at 37 weeks was acceptable.
For three decades, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists has advised against early-elective deliveries. But just last year, it redefined a full-term birth as 39 to nearly 41 weeks to reflect recent research that shows the importance each week can have on the health of a newborn.
"You came up believing what you were doing was correct," Durousseau said. "There is a certain amount of intellectual resistance to change."