The Maternal Death Crisis in the United States

by | Feb 20, 2019 | Birth Injury, Firm News |

In the developed world, the United States tops the list of countries with the highest maternal mortality rates — about 700 deaths per year at a rate of 20.7 deaths per 100,000 births, reports the United Health Foundation.

Not only does the U.S. have the highest rate of pregnancy-related deaths, it is also the only developed nation where the maternal death rate has been increasing. The rate of deaths resulting from pregnancy complications rose by 26 percent from 2000 to 2014. These statistics are staggering to Americans who are under the impression that medical science in the United States is one of the most advanced in the world.

The risks associated with birth are even higher for black mothers. The maternal mortality rate among black women is 47.2 deaths per 100,000 births, compared to a rate of 18.1 deaths per 100,000 births for white women.

Causes of Pregnancy-Related Death

The high rate of maternal deaths in the United States can be attributed to factors such as poverty, lack of health insurance, and limited access to proper prenatal care and maternity wards, especially in rural areas. Sadly, a number of pregnancy deaths are the outcome of neglect and blatant discrimination.

Medical Malpractice

About fifty percent of maternal deaths in the United States are preventable and a result of medical malpractice. The negligence of hospital staff can not only result in direct injury and exacerbated complications, but also simple inattention throughout pregnancy that can cause issues to go unaddressed. It is unfortunately common in many of these cases for nurses and doctors to ignore the concerns of mothers, leading to undiagnosed conditions. Some doctors go as far as refusing treatment to women who they feel are exaggerating their conditions. The immense gap between the maternal death rate among black and white mothers demonstrates the role bias can play when doctors evaluate their patients. Treatable conditions are left ignored, causing issues to worsen and become fatal.

Hemorrhaging (blood loss) and preeclampsia (pregnancy-related high blood pressure) are two of the most common health problems reported by expectant mothers that can become deadly if not examined. These ailments can be easily treated in many cases. Preeclampsia, for example, can be managed with medication when detected early. Unfortunately, a simple solution develops into a need for more complicated operations if patient experiences are disregarded.

Why Are Maternal Mortality Rates On The Rise? 

Though this meteoric rise is a concern, you must also consider that significant improvements of the record-keeping regarding maternal deaths have played a role in a part of these rates. However, there are a few key factors which play a tangible part in this heartbreaking endemic. Some research suggests that American women are having children later in their lives, thus increasing their risks of obesity and life-threatening medical conditions such as high blood pressure and diabetes. Pregnant women are also susceptible to perilous risk factors just like any other person, including violence, substance abuse, suicide, homicide, car accidents, etc.

However, the dark reality is that this problem is far more complex and often directly or indirectly related to the hospital, OB/GYN, or medical professional in the direct care of the mother and child. Medical negligence, misconduct, lack of providing adequate care, and poor oversight of care are leading causes of these tragedies. The system is currently failing mothers and their unborn children as these preventable conditions must be mitigated through whatever means necessary, without hesitation. Tentative solutions include an increase in training and communication, reviewing policies, and upholding elevated care criteria for screening, diagnosis, and prevention.

Maternal Mortality: Underlying Causes And Prevention

Although there are unique and specific facts associated with every case of maternal death, explorations into what’s behind rising maternal mortality rates in the U.S. have noted a few of the most common potentially preventable causes. These include:

  • Postpartum hemorrhage
  • Severe hypertension
  • Venous thromboembolism (a blood clot which starts in the vein)

These and other pregnancy and childbirth risks demand the attention of medical professionals who uphold their duty of care when treating mothers, and provide the skilled and competent treatment they need. Unfortunately, rising maternal death rates indicate doctors, nurses, and hospitals are falling short in their obligation to provide the level of care needed to reverse the trend. As experts note, hospitals should be focusing on a few important measures:

  • Expanding focus on mothers – While a focus on the safety of infants is important, it should not come at the expense of mothers’ health. According to NPR’s investigations, even hospitals with specialized neonatal intensive care units can be woefully unprepared for emergencies involving mothers. Additionally, only 6% of state and federal funding for maternal and child heath contribute to the health of mothers, and lax regulations allow some doctors in the growing specialty of maternal-fetal medicine to complete training without hands-on practice. These findings indicate maternal death isn’t just an under-recognized problem among laymen and everyday Americans, but also the health care industry and our government. Expanding a focus on mothers will be critical to improving outcomes.
  • Best practices – The Alliance for Innovation of Maternal Health (AIM) is an organization leading the effort to improve safety in maternity care. AIM recommends that hospitals which treat pregnant mothers and oversee childbirth implement specific best practices that focus on protocols for preparedness, recognition and response, and reporting. Many existing hospital protocols fail to streamline procedures for dealing with possibly fatal complications, which can turn treatable issues into tragedies.
  • Collaborative care – Hospitals should focus on promoting collaboration and communication among multi-disciplinary specialists to ensure an understanding of each maternal patient’s risks and ways to effectively treat them. Additionally, hospitals should employ the Maternal Health Compact, which can formalize relationships between hospitals with limited resources and larger and better equipped facilities, allow for better management of emergencies, and streamline procedures for transferring mothers to hospitals which offer higher-level care. This type of collaborative approach can reduce the potential for communication errors that lead to preventable harm, and provide a stronger system of support when emergencies do arise.
  • Simulated emergency training – In addition to following best practices for preparedness, experts recommend that hospital staff participate in simulated emergencies which may arise in the labor and deliver unit. Such training is as important for common complications as it is for low-probability but high-risk and potentially fatal events.

The Role of Early Recognition

Medical professionals who specialize in obstetrics and gynecology note that early warning systems are needed for timely recognition of hemorrhage, hypertensive crisis, sepsis, venous thromboembolism and heart failure to curb a “concerning pattern of delay in recognition” of these critical illnesses. These professionals also call for increased monitoring of women who have chronic health conditions such as hypertension, diabetes and chronic heart disease while pregnant as these conditions put pregnant women at increased risk.

Remedies Available for Victims

A failure by a medical professional to properly monitor a pregnancy can lead to injury to both the mother and child. If this failure falls below the acceptable standard of care, a medical malpractice suit is likely available for the victims. These suits are intended to offer the victims two forms of relief: financial and emotional. Financially, an award can provide assistance to cover the costs associated with the injury, such as hospital bills and lost wages as well as potential pain and suffering. Emotionally, the claim can help the victim hold the negligent health care provider responsible for their actions and prevent future harm to other patients.

Those who are suffering from injuries or have lost a loved one due to complications during the birth of a child are wise to seek the counsel of an experienced medical malpractice attorney. Your attorney will review the details of your case and work to better ensure that your rights are protected.


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