American women, and especially American women of color, face a higher risk of death during pregnancy and childbirth than women in most other industrialized nations. In fact, the U.S. is the only industrialized country where the rate of maternal death is increasing, rather than decreasing.
Most of these deaths are preventable.
United States Ranks Behind Saudi Arabia and Kazakhstan in Maternal Death Rate
The USA Today investigation found that more than 60,000 mothers in the United States are severely injured during childbirth every year.
Statistically, two women in the United States die during childbirth every day.
The United States ranks 46th in the world in maternal mortality, behind countries that include Saudi Arabia and Kazakhstan.
The maternal death rate is often used to evaluate a society’s development. While maternal death is declining in other industrialized countries, it continues to rise in the United States.
American women are more than three times as like to suffer maternal death than are Canadian women, and six times as likely to suffer maternal death than women in Scandinavia.
In the United States, between 700 and 900 women die during pregnancy every year, while more than 60,000 suffer life threatening complications after delivery.
Cesarean Sections Increase Risk of Maternal Death
Many physicians believe that an increase in the use of Cesarean-Sections, or C-sections, during delivery has led to the high rate of maternal deaths.
Another cause is more frequent induction of labor with drugs like Pitocin, which is associated with higher rates of C-sections.
Despite its being a common practice, a C-section is a complicated surgical procedure that increases the risk of maternal death.
Once a woman has had a C-section, she is more likely to require a C-section in other deliveries.
According to Dr. Neel Shah, a professor of obstetrics at Harvard Medical School, “the second time [is] a more complicated surgery. And the third time it can be like operating on a melted box of crayons. And in those cases, women can bleed to death.” Dr. Shah believes that “more than half” of the C-sections performed in the United States are unnecessary.
Pregnancy Later in Life Leads to Increase in Maternal Death Statistics
Advanced maternal age is another risk factor that contributes to an increase in maternal death, and American women are waiting until later in life to have children.
Pregnancy in older women is more complicated, and older women typically begin a pregnancy less healthy. They may have other medical complications that must be managed such as obesity, high blood pressure, and diabetes.
Complications During Labor and Delivery Lead to Maternal Death
Complications following labor and delivery that can lead to maternal death include:
Blood clots, and
These conditions require that hospitals pay close attention to their patients, and monitor blood pressure, lab values and the level of the mother’s blood loss.
While hospitals have steadily improved at decreasing the rate of infant mortality in hospitals, mothers are still at risk.
Women of Color Face Even Higher Risk of Maternal Death
Women of color are three to four times more likely to die during childbirth in the United States than white women. One factor is that women of color are statistically more likely to be unable to have health insurance and rely on emergency room treatment for prenatal care.
But that’s not the whole story.
Even tennis-star, world-class athlete, and global icon Serena Williams developed a pulmonary embolism after giving birth to her daughter and almost died.
Williams underwent an emergency C-section after her daughter’s heart rate fell to dangerously low levels during delivery. Williams’ daughter was fine, but Williams suffered a pulmonary embolism that required multiple surgeries after the delivery.
According to an article in Vogue magazine, the day after delivery Williams felt short of breath and requested a CT scan with contrast and heparin (a blood thinner). Williams has a history of blood clots and was off her regimen of anticoagulants due to her recent delivery.
The nurse thought the pain medicine was making her confused, but Williams insisted on the CT scan.
After an ultrasound revealed nothing, and at Williams' urging, the hospital ordered a CT scan which revealed several blood clots that had settled in her lungs.
Other Industrialized Countries Treat Maternal Death as a Systemic Problem
In other industrialized countries maternal death is not treated as an individual tragedy but is viewed as a failure of the medical system.
For example, in the United Kingdom a national committee reviews every instance of maternal death and uses that information to publish reports that set policies for hospitals around the country. Coroners may hold public inquests and can force hospitals and medical teams to answer for mistakes that were made.
The U.S. does not have a comparable system. Instead, it is left to individuals to hire a competent medical malpractice attorney to pursue justice through the legal system.
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Tom Robenaltstarted his litigation career representing doctors and hospitals at a large firm in Cleveland. For the past 20 years, he has used that experience to help victims and the families of those injured by negligent health care providers.
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