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Leah Binder Headshot

What You Need to Know About Early Elective Deliveries

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The prevalence of early elective deliveries perfectly embodies the five biggest problems in our health system today. These are births scheduled without a medical reason between 37 and 39 completed weeks of pregnancy. Below I explain how -- but keep reading, because I do have some words of optimism in the end.

Problem 1: Too Much Unnecessary Care
Overuse and unnecessary care accounts for anywhere from one-third to one-half of all health care costs, which equal hundreds of billions of dollars, in addition to the half-a-trillion per year experts attribute to lost productivity and disability.

Early elective deliveries are unnecessary, according to advice by the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, that has been repeated for more than 30 years (that's not a typo -- 30 years), a point reinforced recently at a press conference. This is a message carried by several other highly respected organizations like Childbirth Connection, the March of Dimes and the Association of Women's Health, Obstetric & Neonatal Nurses (AWHONN). All national health plans concur. Nonetheless, we saw a dramatic escalation in the rates of these deliveries from the 1990s to the first decade of the new century.

Problem 2: Avoidable Harm to Patients
This is one of health care's most common problems. The statistics are staggering. Here's an example: Roughly a quarter of patients admitted to a hospital will be subject to some form of medical error. Would you get in your car if you thought you had a one in four chance of harm during the drive?

Early elective deliveries harm women and newborns. Babies born at 37-39 completed weeks gestation are at much higher risk of death. They are also at a far higher risk for harms like respiratory problems and admission to the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU).

Problem 3: Billions of Dollars are Being Wasted
A report by the Institute of Medicine Health suggests a third or more of health costs are wasted. The cost of these unnecessary, harmful early elective deliveries was estimated in a study in the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology to be nearly $1 billion per year.

Problem 4: Perverse Incentives in How We Pay for Care
Traditionally, health plans, Medicare and Medicaid pay providers for whatever services they deliver, regardless of whether the service truly benefits the patient. An excellent new book called The Incentive Cure points out (as does a plethora of other literature that could fill several libraries) how we end up with an epidemic of perverse incentives.

The harsh truth about early elective deliveries is that our payment system encourages them. They generate admissions to NICUs, and NICUs are profit centers. Studies suggest that reducing the rate of these deliveries to a reasonable number could eliminate as many as one-half million NICU days, which could lower health costs for the U.S. But this would force hospitals to take a big financial hit. To their credit, in my experience, once hospitals recognize they have a problem with early elective deliveries, they don't think twice about taking that hit. States like South Carolina and Texas are trying to reverse the incentives, as are many employers. Unfortunately, they are the exception that proves the terrible rule of insane payment incentives.

Problem 5: Lack of Transparency
We have far more information available to us to compare and select a new car than we do to choose where to go for lifesaving health care.

Transparency galvanizes change like nothing else. Early elective deliveries exemplify that: Despite warnings over the years from medical societies and highly respected national organizations, the rates of these deliveries have been rising for decades. That stopped when a purchaser-driven organization, The Leapfrog Group (my organization), started reporting early elective delivery rates by hospitals in 2010. Suddenly, the rates started declining. Earlier this year, Leapfrog released the 2012 data showing that the national rate for early elective deliveries is 11.2 percent, down from 17 percent in 2010. This is a voluntary survey, with nearly 800 hospitals providing the data willingly. Consumers deserve to know these rates for every hospital delivering babies in the country.

Now for a Dose of Optimism
We have a glimpse of success in ending early elective deliveries. Sparked by public reporting, we have seen a growing cadre of providers, policymakers and consumer advocates uniting to address this problem, and the Department of Health & Human Services declared early elective deliveries as a top priority issue. Regional coalitions are also vowing to end the practice in their community.

The next step is for purchasers and consumers to keep up the pressure because that will only help in encouraging real change. And we need to apply that model across the board -- the business community should also work together to address the five big problems in health care that have a direct impact on their own employees' health and their business' bottom line. The key message here for all groups is this: Don't financially reward the wrong care and demand transparency.

The post first appeared on Forbes.com