MotherBaby Network

advocacy and commentary with a focus on Lane County, Oregon

Part 1: Consumer Advocacy & Evidence-Based Infant Feeding Practices

Here’s the first “installment” for my upcoming presentation at the March 2-3 Breastfeeding Coalition 5h Annual Meeting. Blue text indicates information that will be placed on PowerPoint slides, black text indicates what will be said. I’d love your feedback either here or via email at motherbabynetwork@gmail.com.

This installment covers introductory info, background on me and why thinking of women as consumers rather than patients can be productive. The next installment will go into consumer demand, the Baby Friendly Hospital Initiative and the increasing support for Baby Friendly at all levels of government and among accrediting bodies.

The Role of Consumer Advocacy in Increasing Evidence-Based Infant Feeding Practice

“Mothers are acutely aware of and devoted to their responsibilities when it comes to feeding their children, but the responsibilities of others must be identified so that all mothers can obtain the information, help, and support they deserve when they breastfeed their infants.” (Surgeon 2011: v)

Good morning. My name is Katharine Gallagher. I have been invited to speak with you today about the role consumer advocacy plays in increasing evidence-based infant feeding practice. My objective is to outline how responding to consumer demand and encouraging and engaging consumer advocacy encourages hospitals and providers toward practices that effectively support women in making sound infant feeding decisions.

The framework for this year’s annual meeting is the Surgeon General’s 2011 Call to Action to Support Breastfeeding. The fundamental assertion made in this call to action is that a woman’s ability to initiate and sustain breastfeeding is influenced by a host of variables and factors. These include an individual woman, her partner, extended family, healthcare providers and employer. Public health and social service agencies as well as community-based programs also influence breastfeeding decisions as do schools, child care centers, houses of worship, business and industry, and, let’s not forget…the media.

In other words, decisions and outcomes related to infant feeding occur in a multi-layered and dynamic environment. The manner in which these multiple factors support or thwart a woman’s ability to make and follow through on infant-care decisions has a very fast-acting and mostly permanent impact on the trajectory of decisions to breastfeed.

Each of us comes to this meeting with a particular role to play in curbing the discord of the aforementioned factors that influence individual-level decisions. We are here to develop meaningful social supports to ensure women can follow through on the decision to breastfeed their babies. My focus this morning is on the inter-play between women as the consumers of infant feeding services and health care facilities – hospitals – and  providers.

Responding to demand and partnering with consumers fosters improved maternity care. It moves us closer to a model that consistently educates and supports women, families and communities to make choices supported by sound scientific research, good judgment and individual preferences and values. Once engaged, consumers provide an invaluable feedback loop to support and inform policy, practice and outcome analysis. As system users, consumers have a unique perspective. They know from experience how well a particular system is or is not working. Frequently, they know what is needed.  When this information is regularly sought and acted upon, we have a culture of consumer engagement.

About Me

Before getting started, I’d like to share a little about myself and how I came to be involved with maternity care reform as a consumer advocate.

I am the mother of two boys – ages four and six. My professional background is in public policy. My experiences over the past six years with both evidence-based and non-evidence-based maternity care have profoundly influenced me as a person, a mother and a citizen. The result is a deeply-held conviction that we must transform maternity care in this country. This is not solely a women’s issue. We are talking about reforming policies and practices as well as behaviors and decision-making approaches with major physical, emotional, social and financial implications for the economic health and security of this generation and those to come. This is an “everyone” issue.

My first pregnancy was a healthy, low-risk experience that resulted unexpectedly in what I believe to have been an unnecessary and entirely avoidable cesarean section. Hindsight is 20/20. Only in retrospect could I see the signs pointing to and hinting at the impatience and aggressive management my Ob/Gyn employed during my labor and birth. My postpartum trajectory continued south as my son and I had extreme difficulties establishing breastfeeding. However, because he was such a determined latcher, we were considered to be doing fine and encouraged to skip our lactation consultation before discharge from the hospital. This decision was made despite the telltale signs of chewing on my nipples and my too-shyly stated observations that “things didn’t feel right.” At home with a chomper-latch baby and reeling from the shock of an unanticipated surgery, hazy from painkillers, things got worse and worse still.

A long story short, my pleas for help from the medical practice I was using and a willingness to pay out of pocket failed to secure the assistance we needed. In serious need of help, during an appointment for my baby, I asked the pediatrician to look at my breasts to confirm that I had a problem. He would not, and no referral was made. A desperate late-night call to La Leche League and another pediatrician’s gentle support resulted in our finally finding someone to help. We found an independent lactation consultant who works outside the healthcare system.

By this point, all of us were in pretty wretched shape. My nipples were chewed to shreds, my son was far from content and my husband was worried. Getting back on track required weeks of pumping and syringe feeding until my breasts healed. We then slowly re-introduced my baby to the breast. This was a team effort. My husband and I both took unpaid maternity leave and my mother moved in and  took care of all of us. Weeks of perseverance paid off and eventually we were where we needed to be to continue breastfeeding. Clearly this experience is and would be the exception, not the rule for most women and families.

Pregnant again and much better informed the second time, I knew I wanted to have a different birth and postpartum experience – one that would allow me to hold and hug my two-year old and tend to a newborn without the physical and emotional challenges of cesarean recovery. I selected the Baby-Friendly designated PeaceHealth Nurse Midwifery Birth Center for my care. My prenatal experience exhibited the hallmarks of optimal healthcare – individualized care, personal responsibility, shared decision making and informed consent. Attended by a midwife at the hospital, I had an un-medicated VBAC. My second son was born content and alert and eased peacefully into life outside the womb beginning with the glorious and inordinately important but yet to be fully understood skin-to-skin time. My delight and amazement in seeing a baby so alert and present was shared by the many Labor and Delivery nurses who came in to see an “un-medicated baby.”

Consistent with Baby Friendly, I had been counseled and educated prenatally about breastfeeding. I had the knowledge and support to confidently continue nursing my first son through my second pregnancy. Per my wishes, I was also able to tandem nurse until my oldest son weaned at 3 yrs old. Furthermore, along the way I connected with other new mothers using the Nurse Midwifery Birth Center. These women became an invaluable source of support for breastfeeding and just about everything else – pumping, returning to work, not returning to work, how to take a shower, the best places in town to change diapers and the lists goes on.

Tops on our personal lists for breastfeeding success? The weekly drop-in baby clinic and 24-hour phone support for lactation. We had a  lactation safety net and while many of us had not realized it would so critical before birth, we soon discovered how necessary it is to getting breastfeeding started and maintained. We did not yet know this lactation support was the outcome of evidence-based practice or that it had a name –the Baby Friendly Hospital Initiative. What we did know was that it worked. This was a most welcome change from my first breastfeeding experience and I was continually struck by the way in which new mothers were seamlessly supported in learning to breastfeed and to solve problems and overcome challenges that are part of life with a new baby.

Consumer or Patient?

“Empowered, informed, engaged consumers, individually or collectively, can be effective at overcoming barriers to safe, effective care.” (Romano, 53) 

Just as communities, healthcare systems, government and employers must re-tool or re-orient themselves to support evidence-based infant feeding decision making, so too must those who consume maternity services – women. Seeing oneself as a consumer rather than as a patient can provoke a radically different set of perspectives and actions that positively influence individual and system-wide care.

Pregnancy is a gateway experience into the health care system for many women. For most, pregnancy is a time of health, discovery and a renewed commitment to well-being. Women’s experience shapes their behaviors and expectations for future interactions with healthcare throughout the life cycle. Add to this that women frequently take the lead in heath care decision making for nuclear and extended family members and their initial experiences via maternity care have multiple ripple effects. Accordingly, the manner in and degree to which they participate in decision making during pregnancy, birth and the postpartum period has significant social, health and economic implications in the lives of women, families and communities that reach well beyond today’s topic of infant feeding.

Re-conceiving of the users of the maternity care system as consumers rather than patients promotes productive ideas and behaviors by providers and users. Consumers are associated with:

  • Knowledge
  • Choice
  • Purchasing Power
  • Autonomy
  • Responsibility

As a consumer advocate and childbirth educator, I encourage women to take an active role in their care. I encourage them to use their purchasing power and autonomy to shop around and ask questions in order to identify facilities and practices with the best reputations for thorough lactation support with excellent post-birth outcomes. I remind them that it is okay to change hospitals, birth centers and providers, too.

When women are seen as and view themselves as consumers with the attributes of knowledge, choice, purchasing power and autonomy, it is much easier to develop and benefit from the resulting personal responsibility, mutuality, partnership, collaboration and trust when they engage care in a particular setting. This beginning orientation lays the groundwork for developing the expectation for and demand for consistent evidence-based practices. It lays the anticipatory groundwork on the part of the user for share decision making and informed consent across the life cycle.

These assertions have yet to be borne out by research. The majority of current maternal and child health research focuses on interventions fully within the realm of providers with little to no consumer participation. Cesarean surgical techniques or intensive care treatments are examples of “provider realm” interventions. Research into consumer-realm interventions would invert institutional paradigms to elevate women receiving care to the position of  a “positive” and “powerful” actor capable of moving maternal and child health outcomes in a positive direction. In this era of health reform in which we appear to be searching for meaningful ways to move toward a preventive model with the associated reduced costs, increased positive outcomes and great consumer satisfaction, this type of inquiry is much needed.

We are seeing hints of this forward-thinking inversion here in Oregon. During the last legislative session, a law was passed directing the Oregon Health Authority to investigate how doulas (labor companions) improve birth outcomes for women at disproportionate risk. Doulas provide emotional, non-medical support associated with positive outcomes. Doulas are a well documented evidence based and non-medical intervention with a proven track record for positively influencing the social, physical and emotional outcomes of the perinatal period. Rep. Tina Kotek (D-N and NE Portland) and Rep. Lew Frederick (D-NE Portland) sponsored the bill. Portland-based International Center for Traditional Childbearing played a critical role in the introduction of the bill.

Fortunately, there is one very important “consumer realm” intervention for infant feeding services that has already clearly demonstrated massive maternal and child health benefits.. It is the Baby Friendly Hospital Initiative’s Ten Steps to Successful Breastfeeding. From start to finish, consumers are educated, engaged in decision making with the necessary evidence-based information about infant feeding and provided with full-spectrum perinatal support for making breastfeeding work. This intervention can be summarized in two words: “It works!” It works for mothers, families, employers, communities, economies and, well, everyone. Baby Friendly figures greatly into any discussion, including this one, of policy development and implementation for heeding the Surgeon General’s Call to Action to Support Breastfeeding.

End of installment #1…..

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6 responses to “Part 1: Consumer Advocacy & Evidence-Based Infant Feeding Practices

  1. Peggy Wacks January 11, 2012 at 9:57 pm

    I think it is terrific and very convincing as is. Your story is clear and very personal, but relevant to all. Great job, Katharine.

  2. Sue Scott January 13, 2012 at 2:15 am

    A perfect melding of a personal story and public policy! I did not know your story before, Katharine, and now understand even more your deep devotion and understanding of this crucial subject. I am excited for you to give this talk and good luck and “reaching” those who need to hear.

  3. Renee January 17, 2012 at 1:00 am

    A great presentation! You make many very important points and the weaving together of your story and the policy issues make a powerful statement. I enjoyed reading your story again and remembering all the advice and knowledge we all shared with each other- from coaching each other through nursing situations to how to change a diaper one handed. I hope those with the power to improve breastfeeding care listen with open ears to you talk!

    • motherbabynetwork January 17, 2012 at 2:59 am

      Thanks so much for taking the time to read this Renee. I remember fondly the advice and knowledge we all shared. In fact, I remember our first meeting in great detail. Just goes to show how important and special these beginnings are.

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