According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word obstetrics is defined as “that branch of medicine that deals with childbirth and the care and treatment of the mother before and after birth.” Its derivation is from the Latin obstetrix, meaning midwife—from “mid”—with, and “wif”—meaning woman. Petraglia (2008) describes evidence of midwifery from records found in ancient Egypt and the Roman Empire. The Egyptian Ebers Papyrus (1900 to 1550 BC) recognized midwifery as a female occupation concerned with obstetrics and gynecology, and specifically with the acceleration of parturition and the birth process. Petraglia further reports that midwifery services were described through the Middle Ages and into the 18th century, at which time the role of the surgeon superseded that of the midwife. It was at this time that medicine began to assert that its modern scientific processes were better for mothers and infants than those of folk-medical midwives.
In the contemporaneous sense, obstetrics is concerned with reproduction of humans. The specialty promotes health and well-being of the pregnant woman and her fetus through quality prenatal care. Such care entails appropriate recognition and treatment of complications, supervision of their labor and delivery, ensuring care of the newborn, and management of the puerperium to include follow-up care that promotes health and provides family planning options.
The importance of obstetrics is attested to by the use of maternal and neonatal outcomes as an index of the quality of health and life in human society. Intuitively, indices that reflect poor obstetrical and perinatal outcomes would lead to the assumption that medical care for the entire population is lacking. With those thoughts, we now provide a synopsis of the current state of maternal and newborn health in the United States as it relates to obstetrics.
The National Vital Statistics System of the United States is the oldest and most successful example of intergovernmental data sharing in public health. The National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS) collects and disseminates official statistics through contractual agreements with vital registration systems operated in various jurisdictions legally responsible for registration of births, fetal deaths, deaths, marriages, and divorces. Legal authority resides individually with the 50 states; two regions—the District of Columbia and New York City; and five territories—American Samoa, Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands. Schoendorf and Branum (2006) provide a thoughtful review of the use of these statistics to conduct obstetrical and perinatal research.
Standard certificates for the registration of live births and deaths were first developed in 1900. An act of Congress in 1902 established the Bureau of the Census to develop a system for the annual collection of vital statistics. The Bureau retained authority until 1946, when the function was transferred to the United States Public Health Service. It is presently assigned to the Division of Vital Statistics of the NCHS, which is a division of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The standard birth certificate was extensively revised in 1989 to include more information on medical and lifestyle risk factors and also obstetrical care practices.
Further revisions were initiated in some states in 2003, but full implementation in all states will not be completed for several more years. The 2003 revision focuses on fundamental changes in data collection aimed at improving accuracy. Changes also include a format conducive to electronic processing, to collect more explicit parental demographic data, and to improve selection of information regarding antepartum and intrapartum complications. Some examples of new data to be collected include those related to uterine rupture, blood transfusion, and pregnancy resulting from infertility treatment.
The uniform use of standard definitions is encouraged by the World Health Organization as well as the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (2007). Such uniformity allows comparison of data not only between states or regions of the country, but also between countries. Still, not all of these definitions are uniformly applied, as illustrated by the example of definitions of inclusive fetal birthweights. To wit, these two organizations recommend reporting to include all fetuses and neonates born weighing at minimum 500 g, whether alive or dead. But not all of the 50 states follow this recommendation. For example, 28 states stipulate that fetal deaths beginning at 20 weeks' gestation should be recorded as such; 8 states report all products of conception as fetal deaths; and still others use a minimum birthweight of 350 g, 400 g, or 500 g to define fetal deaths. To further the confusion, the National Vital Statistics Reports tabulates fetal deaths as those 20 weeks' gestation or older (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2009). But the 50th percentile for fetal weight at 20 weeks approximates 325 to 350 g—considerably less than the 500-g definition. Indeed, a birthweight of 500 g corresponds closely with the 50th percentile for 22 weeks.
Definitions recommended by the NCHS and the CDC are as follows:
- Perinatal period. The period after birth of an infant born after 20 weeks and ending at 28 completed days after birth. When perinatal rates are based on birthweight, rather than gestational age, it is recommended that the perinatal period be defined as commencing at 500 g.
- Birth. The complete expulsion or extraction from the mother of a fetus after 20 weeks' gestation. As described above, in the absence of accurate dating criteria, fetuses weighing <500 g are usually not considered as births, but rather are termed abortuses for purposes of vital statistics.
- Birthweight. The weight of a neonate determined immediately after delivery or as soon thereafter as feasible. It should be expressed to the nearest gram.
- Birth rate. The number of live births per 1000 population.
- Fertility rate. The number of live births per 1000 females aged 15 through 44 years.
- Live birth. The term used to record a birth whenever the newborn at or sometime after birth breathes spontaneously or shows any other sign of ...
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