Monday, December 7, 2009

Maternal Health Care With a Human Touch

"There's a misconception that all midwives have their babies in the field and sing 'Kumbaya.' That's not true. There are a lot of midwives that don't deliver. That's not the point. It's to take care of women. But we don't get respected as much here as midwives do in other countries." -- Ebony Roebuck, American midwife.

An issue that has come up repeatedly in the current health care reform debate in the United States is whether Americans use more expensive health services than they really need.

Consider, for example, the cost of having a baby.

Statistics show that delivering a baby without complications at a U.S. hospital costs about $7,000. In a birthing center with midwives but without doctors, drugs or expensive technology, the cost is less than $2,000.

In many developing countries, midwives often are the only people available to assist women during birth. But in the United States, the practice, called midwifery, is poorly understood and many people fear use of a midwife can make childbirth riskier than it needs to be.

Midwives are not just about taking care of pregnant women and delivering babies. Their role is to accompany women throughout their lives, and help them be healthier from head to toe. Midwives encourage proper nutrition, regular exercise and good lifestyle habits, rather than a reliance on drugs or technology.

Critics argue there isn't enough professional oversight for midwives, and that expectant women shouldn't be deprived of the benefits of new medical technology. They also say that in emergency situations, both the mother’s and the baby’s lives could be in danger with only a midwife at the bedside.

Midwifery advocates insist that safety is always their first concern, and that complicated or emergency pregnancies are referred to regular doctors. But in the vast majority of normal cases, they say midwives offer an inexpensive, holistic and time-tested alternative for women who can't afford a doctor's care or women who just seek a simpler, more intimate birthing experience. Should more Americans adopt this less-expensive, more human-oriented care that doesn't rely on doctors, drugs and costly technology?

The D.C. Birthing Center thinks so. In this slideshow, we get to know patients, midwives and the director at the Washington-based center, as they explain their reasons for pursuing midwifery.