Updated: April 2020
When I facilitate workshops with midwives and students, there is always a lot of discussion and debate about professional responsibilities in the mother-midwife relationship. These debates often get heated, and the complexities of legal, professional, and ethical issues can become confusing. This post is an attempt to ‘un-confuse’ and simplify these matters a little. Please note that this post is aimed at registered midwives ie. midwives who register each year, thereby agreeing to meet professional standards. It is also about Australian midwifery and may or may not be applicable to other countries.
Midwives can get caught up in meeting the needs of the institutions they work in, and/or feeling responsible for the decisions that women make (eg. to follow or not to follow institutional recommendations). So, it can be helpful to reflect on what our core responsibilities are in the mother-midwife relationship, and how we can meet them. These core responsibilities remain regardless of the care model and/or setting.
As midwives we have guidance about our responsibilities via our professional bodies. The International Confederation of Midwives (ICM) provide a number of core documents that are reflected in national codes and standards e.g. the Nursing and Midwifery Board of Australia (NMBA). These documents are referenced when determining whether a midwife met their professional responsibilities. In this post I discuss my interpretation of these documents and the law in relation to responsibilities. I would be interested in your interpretations too so please comment.
“Midwifery care takes place in partnership with women, recognising the right to self-determination, and is respectful, personalised, continuous and non-authoritarian.” – ICM Philosophy and Model of Maternity Care
In essence midwifery care is ‘woman-centred’. This means that the midwife must primarily meet the needs of the woman – not the institution, or cultural norms, or colleagues, or a personal agenda.
In order to meet their core responsibilities, midwives need to be research literate. By that, I don’t mean they need to be able to conduct research or understand complex statistics. However, they do need to be able to find evidence, evaluate it, and apply it to practice. This is why university midwifery programs include research in the curriculum (and yes, students generally hate it!). The NMBA Midwife Standards for Practice state that:
“The midwife supports women’s wellbeing by providing safe, quality midwifery health care using the best available evidence and resources, with the principles of primary health care and cultural safety as foundations for practice.”
“The midwife identifies what is important to women as the foundation for using evidence to promote informed decision-making, participation in care, and self- determination”
“Midwives develop a partnership with individual women in which they share relevant information that leads to informed decision-making, consent to an evolving plan of care, and acceptance of responsibility for the outcomes of their choices.” – ICM International Code of Ethics for Midwives
“Midwives provide women with appropriate information and advice in a way that promotes participation and enhances informed decision-making.” – ICM Philosophy and Model of Maternity Care
It is essential that midwives provide women with adequate information. A failure to do so not only breaches professional standards, but can also result in legal action for assault and battery (due to invalid consent) or negligence (of information giving). The legal standards for ‘reasonable information’ are listed in a previous post; and there are also professional standards about information giving.
Firstly midwives need to be clear about how they practise, their responsibilities, and their boundaries. For example, a woman needs to know that a private practice midwife is guided by the National Midwifery Guidelines for Consultation and Referral and the Safety and Quality Guidelines for Privately Practising Midwives; and what this means if her situation is categorised as a ‘consult’ or ‘refer’. In Australia, private practise midwives can withdraw care if a woman declines consultation or referral. They can also continue care if the woman declines a consult or refer. A woman needs to know her midwife’s threshold for withdrawing care before engaging their services.
When a decision is required about any aspect of care – from place of birth, to vitamin K for the newborn – adequate information must be provided about the option/procedure/intervention. In the case of a procedure – the person performing the procedure needs to gain consent ie. ensure adequate information is given. For example, if a midwife is about to start an induction process for a woman – that midwife is responsible for ensuring the woman is adequately informed. It would be nice if the person arranging the induction, or the person prescribing the medication provides adequate information… but the midwife cannot rely on this. It is her/his responsibility.
If the midwife is employed by an institution she may be obliged to offer particular options eg. a 4 hourly vaginal examination during labour. However the key word is ‘offer’. In addition to this offer, the woman needs adequate information to consent or decline the offer. If the midwife is in private practice she/he needs to inform the woman of the ‘standard’ or mainstream practise, particularly if there are state, national or international guidelines/recommendations.
For an option or intervention adequate information includes:
- The rationale for the recommendation: why guidelines suggest the option or procedure.
- A description of the option or procedure: what it is, how it is carried out, what it involves, etc.
- General benefits and risks of all options: including current research, and whether guidelines are supported by research.
- Individualised benefits and risks of all options: are there different stats/research that the woman needs to consider in regard to her individual circumstances?
Let’s take a look at some examples…
Eg. What a woman needs to know about induction of labour for post-dates pregnancy:
- That most clinical guidelines recommend induction of labour at 41 weeks + because there is an increase in perinatal mortality (baby death) for pregnancies that continue beyond 41 weeks. I can see that some of you are already cringing, but this is the truth. You also need to quantify that risk for the woman in a meaningful way eg. 30:10,000 for waiting vs 3:10,000 if labour is induced (see this post). It is not adequate to just state ‘there is increased risk’ or to say that ‘the risk is small’.
- What induction of labour involves and how it is different to physiological labour; and what would happen if she chose to wait eg. options re. monitoring.
- The general risks and benefits of induction, and of waiting (see this post).
- The individual risks for the woman i.e. factors that change her risks eg. is this her first baby? Are there other health concerns or issues (eg. VBAC)?
Eg. What a woman needs to know to consent to a routine vaginal examination during labour (as per a hospital guideline rather than in response to a situation):
- That the hospital guidelines requires the midwife to offer a vaginal examination, for example, the midwife might say “The guideline in this hospital recommends that I offer a vaginal examination to you because you have been in birth suite for 4 hours. The reason for this is to attempt to estimate the progress of your labour.” (you must do this to meet your employee requirements if there is a hospital guideline or policy)
- The evidence supporting (or not) the recommendation, and the risks and benefits of the intervention: “There is no evidence to support that a vaginal examination is an effective method of assessing labour progress because it can’t predict the future…” insert explanation about how all women have a different labour pattern… and the risks and benefits of the a VE.
- Any individual factors that alter risks or benefits eg. if her membranes are not intact there is an additional risk of infection. In some cases a VE may be helpful to support decision making with regard to necessary intervention eg. if labour seems abnormal or the baby’s heart rate is concerning.
It can also be helpful to assert that it is the woman’s decision and that you will support her in whatever she thinks is best for her (many women think they have to follow recommendations).
It is particularly important to provide clear information when a woman is making decisions outside of recommendations or the norm. There is no risk free choice – the woman must decide which risk is most significant for her. In order to do this she needs to have adequate information. For example, if a woman is choosing to birth at home she needs information about the benefits, risks and other options. She needs know the difference between home and hospital, including how the setting might alter the management of any complications.
Information sharing needs to be documented. Like any aspect of care there needs to be evidence that it happened. For example, when gaining consent for a vaginal examination – rather than writing ‘VE with consent’, list the risks discussed (bullet points will do). Some hospitals are using consent forms for common interventions eg. VE and ARM with a list of risks for the midwife to read out and get the woman to sign. If you give the woman any information resources – write down what you gave her.
It is also important to be clear about your scope and abilities by “acknowledging one’s own strengths and limitations” (NMBA 2008b). This involves being honest with women about your experience and ability to meet her needs. For example, if you have limited experience in attending breech births, and her baby is breech – she needs to know. If she is wanting a physiological placental birth and you (the midwife) have limited experience in supporting this – she needs to know.
A word about words… I realise the word ‘risk’ is used a lot in this post. However, the reality is that as midwives we are expected to talk about ‘risk’. We can change the word for ‘chance’ in many cases – but not all. Like it or not, we operate in a ‘risk’ discourse and for legal purposes need to disclose ‘risk’ information with women. However, I avoid the word ‘safe’ when talking to women about their options. Safety is in the eye of the beholder – it is up to the woman whether she thinks a 1:1000 chance of something happening is ‘safe’ or ‘unsafe’. Saying something is ‘safe’ is a judgement and can be seen as an endorsement of a particular option.
Which brings us to the issue of bias. Information sharing needs to be unbiased, and this is extremely difficult because we are all biased and have our own beliefs and opinions. However, there are some strategies to avoid transmitting your bias whilst giving information:
- Present both sides of the coin (see above) ie. risks and benefits of all options in a matter of fact manner ie. don’t share your personal opinions or experiences (with other women) about an option.
- Avoid advising or recommending particular options unless a complication or pathology is actually occurring. For example, you wouldn’t recommend induction, or waiting for an uncomplicated post-dates pregnancy; but you would recommend a medical review if a woman’s blood pressure was abnormally high.
- Ensure that the woman knows you are not invested in her decision, and that you do not want to influence her either way – say this to her.
- When asked “what would you do?” – point out that you are not her , and not in her situation, and what you would do is irrelevant to what is best for her.
- Avoid telling her what you did with your own pregnancy, birth, baby – again, this is not relevant to her.
- Don’t create unnecessary fear about other options, for example if she is choosing to homebirth, it is unprofessional to tell her how awful the local hospital is. Not only can this influence her decision, but it can also make things problematic if a transfer to that hospital is needed.
A good way to assess whether you are providing un-biased information is to look at what women in your care choose to do. If all of the women you care for choose the same option – you need to consider if you are influencing them. Women are individuals and there should be a range of decisions being made.
Woman-centred care... “enables individual decision-making and self-determination for the woman to care for herself and her family. Woman-centred care respects the woman’s ownership of her health information, rights and preferences while protecting her dignity and empowering her choices. Woman-centred care is the focus of midwifery practice in all settings.” – NMBA Midwife Standards for Practice
Once the woman has made her decision the midwife supports and advocates for her. For example, if a woman declines the offer of a vaginal examination – you simply document her decision and carry on. You may need to let colleagues know what her decision is and ensure that they respect it. In some settings, you may be questioned or pressured about her decision – but ultimately you are fulfilling your legal responsibilities regarding consent. This trumps any institutional cultural norms or expectations.
However, for a midwife in private practise responsibilities regarding support are not so clear. If a woman chooses care outside of recommendations the midwife has the choice to carry on providing support – or ‘withdraw’ care. Unfortunately this has resulted in midwives being held responsible for women’s decisions, simply by agreeing to carry on providing care.
The scope of the midwife “…includes preventative measures, the promotion of normal birth, the detection of complications in mother and child, the accessing of medical care or other appropriate assistance and the carrying out of emergency measures” – ICM International Definition of the Midwife
The midwife needs to provide competent care within the constraints of the woman’s decisions. For example, competent management of an emergency situation will be different in a home setting compared to a hospital setting.
The Mother’s Responsibilities
Unlike midwives, women are not registered and regulated. Therefore, there are no guidance documents regarding women’s responsibilities in the mother-midwife relationship (and this section is a lot smaller!). However, if midwives meet their responsibilities (above), then women become accountable for their decisions and the outcome of their decisions.
By law, women have the right to make decisions regarding what is done or not done to them. Midwifery should support women to take responsibility for their decisions.
Many factors influence decision making, and the information a midwife provides is only one piece of the puzzle. Humans are active seekers and interpreters of information. We pick and choose, using and discarding information according to internal and external constraints and considerations. Embodied knowledge, personal experiences and other people’s experiences influence the selective designation of knowledge as authoritative or not. We often start with a conclusion, then rationalise it with evidence. We surround ourselves with people who have beliefs and opinions aligned with our own. The internet has increased our access to information and people who will reinforce our beliefs and choices. Midwives cannot, and should not take responsibility for the sources information a woman chooses to engage with.
Most women will be influenced by the mainstream risk discourse and cultural norms. Women who make decisions against this discourse must seek information and people who will support their decisions. Some do this in response to previous experiences with the medical paradigm. Some choose the support of an unregistered care provider (or no care provider) to birth away from the medical paradigm and its intervention focus and inherent discourse about risk.
Outcome of Decisions
The ICM International Code of Ethics state that women should accept responsibility for the outcomes of their choices (if the midwife met her responsibilities). This is not about blame. It is about accepting that an outcome (good or bad) directly associated with a decision is the responsibility of the decision-maker.
Whilst midwives can be affected by outcomes – they cannot take responsibility for the outcome of a woman’s informed decision. For example, if a woman chooses an induction and the outcome is fetal distress and a c-section – this outcome is not the midwife’s responsibility. The midwife’s responsibility is providing adequate information about induction, supporting the woman’s decision to induce, and competent practice (management of the induction process, identification of the fetal distress, and alerting the medical team).
Registered midwives have a responsibility to provide information, support and competent care to women. In return, women take responsibility for making decision and for the outcome of their decisions. Whilst this appears simple, it is an incredibly complex relationship and I would be interested to read your comments about these issues.