Obstetric Care Under Threat in Rural Areas

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Ready access to maternity services in rural areas is not a given, yet access to obstetric hospitals is associated with decreased rates of preterm birth and neonatal/perinatal mortality.
Little is known, however, about the availability of obstetric centers with respect to birth volume, geographic distribution among states, proximity of obstetric hospitals, and urban adjacency.

"This knowledge is fundamental to inform clinical and policy efforts to optimize perinatal regionalization, care delivery, and outcomes," wrote Sara C. Handley, MD, MSCE, of the Roberts Center for Pediatric Research at the Children 's Hospital of Philadelphia, and colleagues, who undertook to fill that information gap in a study. It was published online Oct. 8 in JAMA Network Open.

Her group found birth volumes varied among obstetric hospitals, with many low-volume facilities located in rural, even isolated, areas, which suggests a need to ensure better access to perinatal care for women in these locations.

Using American Hospital Association data, the researchers examined the birth volumes and geographic distributions of 3,207 maternity hospitals from 2010 to 2018. In a cohort of 34,054,951 births, 56.8% occurred in high-volume obstetric facilities, and 37.4% in low-volume hospitals. Among the latter, 18.9% were isolated in location and not within 30 miles of any other obstetric hospital.

Most infants (19,327,487) were born in hospitals with more than 2,000 births per year, the study found, but a substantial 2,528,259, or 7.4%, were born in low-volume centers reporting 10 to 500 births annually.

"We were surprised by the number of low-volume hospitals and the number of births in low-volume hospitals," Handley said in an interview. Many low-volume hospitals are in rural areas, which may require patients to drive long distances. These hospitals are at high risk of closure and such closures may further increase travel time.

Among low-volume hospitals, 23.9% were within the study proximity threshold of 30 miles of a hospital with more than 2,000 deliveries per year. "And when you 're in labor, even 30 miles is a long drive," Handley said.

According to the authors, these…
Diana Swift
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