Doulas and Informed Consent

Jul 17, 2013 by

One of our primary functions is to empower the mother and her partner to ask questions.  Many of us feel that a nudging, “Do you have any questions about that?” should get our clients more information in the labor room.  Often I can tell them what they need to know, but I don’t consider that to be my role.  It also defeats one of my main unstated purposes:  to increase communication and trust between patient and medical care provider (MCP).  The more I assist information to flow from the doctor, nurse or midwife towards my client, the more improved their relationship will be.  Mother and her partner or family member can also evaluate their MCP and whether their approaches match.  If I do the talking, those important processes don’t take place.  I know what I know so I can tell whether they are getting the information they need.

What if the mother and her family aren’t getting the information she needs?  What if an important piece is missing?  Then I ask.  Depending on the situation, a direct or indirect approach may be best.  Direct approach:  “Is timing an issue with this procedure?  Some other physicians at this hospital had mentioned that to me before?”  I recommend never mentioning that you read something somewhere – it can be interpreted that you are trying to one up the MCP – bad move!  But stating that you heard it from a MCP with equal status or that you observed it at another hospital works better.   The direct approach works best when you sincerely act curious.  You need to be really present with the thought – “Why is it being recommended this way?

If you have another agenda or predominant emotion it is likely that your subliminal behavior will reveal that and be interpreted negatively– often on an unconscious level.  So the direct approach needs to be used attentively by the doula.  Your client also gets the message from your question that there are different approaches – which the MCP may not care for.

The indirect approach can also be referred to as the Dumb Doula approach.  “Isn’t there something about…um, well…the timing, is it called, with this procedure?”   You are asking a leading question in a non-threatening voice.  This strategy is designed to solicit information from the nurse, physician or midwife without challenging them or their authority.  To be honest, I use this approach most often.  It’s been the most effective at meeting my client’s needs over the years.  Now the Dumb Doula approach is not without controversy.  It certainly doesn’t add to our professional reputation or appeal!  “Those doulas might know how to rub a back, but you’d think they’d have learned some more technical stuff by now.”  Additionally, some doulas may think it is manipulative, that we aren’t being authentic.  To me, crafting communication strategies to maximize effectiveness is what I do all over my life: with my family, my students, in mentoring situations.

Some physicians and midwives are happy to answer questions until their patient is comfortable with the recommended treatment or another decision has been reached.  Others seem to feel that asking questions is equal to challenging their authority.  They may seem brusque or annoyed.  Often it is a clash of health care philosophies.  Your client is likely to be wanted to be treated as an individual and to cooperatively make decisions with the doctor or midwife (who is likely a stranger).  However the MCP is likely to see him or herself as the knowledgeable authority whose role it is to make medical decisions.  In addition, they will have to answer not only to the patient, but their colleagues, the hospital administrator, their liability insurance company, and maybe a judge and jury.  So doing what your client wants rather their preference can be a loaded proposition for a physician or midwife.

Having said that, doulas prompting clients to ask questions and receiving answers actually helps informed consent.  When mothers and their partners receive more complete information regarding procedures and intervention, this actually helps the MCP if an action is called into question.  It also decreases the likelihood of a complaint or lawsuit.  Both patient satisfaction studies in public health journals and birth satisfaction studies in nursing and midwifery journals give the same conclusion.  Involved decision making and more complete information from MCPs leads to greater satisfaction, better long term outcomes, and fewer legal actions against physicians.

As doulas our prompts to get more information for our clients is a win/win for physicians and their patients.  The more moms know before something is done, the more satisfied they can be afterward – both immediately and weeks and months afterward.  I just wish more physicians and nurses understood that.

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