One of the neglected areas of research on doulas is their impact on physicians. Studies have shown that physicians have mixed feelings about the presence of birth doulas with younger obstetricians of both genders having the least positive attitudes (1). Commenting on this study, Klein stated:
“Perhaps most concerning, the obstetricians in the younger group were less favorable to birth plans, less likely to acknowledge the importance of the woman’s role in her own birth experience, and more likely to view cesarean surgery as “just another way to have a baby”. (2)
Klein has also stated that there is diversity among the attitudes of both obstetricians and family physicians. At least 20% had attitudes similar to midwives and doulas regarding childbirth – especially experienced and older physicians. Even though our philosophies of birth may differ that does not mean that the presence of a doula is detrimental to physicians. In my estimation there are nine benefits that a professional doula can provide for physicians. In order of relevance, these include ensuring informed consent, observing detailed progression of labor; assisting the physician to know the patient; increasing patient satisfaction with the birth experience; fewer interventions; higher percentage of fees collected; informed refusal; early labor monitoring; and mitigating socially awkward situations.
1. Increasing informed consent. When the doula encourages patient discussion with her physician about an intervention, the doula is increasing the level of disclosure. Information about risks, benefits, and alternatives is given until the patient makes a decision. When this happens, patients are able to give explicit informed consent for the procedure, which benefits the physician. It is no secret that obstetrical care providers are one of the most likely to be sued for malpractice (3). Any time discussion of a procedure can be documented, it is positive for the physician. Informed consent strengthens the physician’s position in case of a lawsuit even if it cannot protect him or her from its occurrence.
However, this discussion does not always fit smoothly into the course of a labor. As Morton explains, the doula can drive an “interactional wedge” between the patient and the physician (4). This occurs when the physician is going to conduct a procedure where the mother had not explicitly given consent. As the doula has been trained to act and engaged by the mother to do, she informs the mother of the physician’s actions before they are completed. The physician’s activity is interrupted and must interact with the patient about the procedure. If the doula were not there, this interaction would likely have proceeded without interruption or discussion between the patient and physician.
In the moment the medical care provider (MCP) may not care for the doula or the interruption to what the MCP perceives as giving good care. It is possible the MCP perceives that there is no need for discussion or consent because it has already been given when signing the “consent for vaginal delivery” form. But there can be a difference between what a physician perceives as informed consent and what a patient perceives as informed consent. When the doula knows the patient’s concerns, she or he is able to facilitate communication around those areas where the patient wants more information and more involvement in decision making. However, this interaction can be awkward and resented by the physicians – even though it is ultimately to their benefit.
2. Getting to know the patient as an individual: The majority of the time in a busy hospital the attending physician has never met the mother. Even if a recent pregnancy appointment occurred, it is quite likely that the physician has seen dozens of women since this mother’s last visit. When a doula is present, the medical care providers are urged to individualize their care for this patient. Doulas do this in subtle ways: we encourage mothers and their partners to say what they want to their nurse, to remind the doctor of their priorities, and to write a brief birth plan for their hospital record. Our very presence is a huge reminder that these parents have thought about their birth and have taken action to see that their needs are met. Evidence suggests that both patients and physicians may be unprepared for these conversations or be uncertain how to proceed (1). In these instances the presence of a doula may be valuable to both.
When providers know the mother, they are able to shift their care in a way that is aligning with this patient’s priorities – while still acting in their comfort zone. The doula is also able to explain the physician’s concerns in language familiar to the laboring mother. Without the doula, the physician has a harder time satisfying the needs of the patient and ensuring that their experience is a positive one. Once again, this depends on the physician’s style. Doctors who like to treat all patients similarly may be irritated by requests to individualize care. MCP’s who place a high priority on connecting with their patients will recognize how much easier that is when a doula is present.
3. Increasing patient satisfaction. Three of the most important factors influencing patient satisfaction during labor are the quality of the caregiver-patient relationship, involvement in decision making, and amount of support from caregivers (5). These factors are more influential than age, socioeconomic status, ethnicity, childbirth preparation, physical birth environment, pain, immobility, medical interventions, and continuity of care. Patients who feel higher levels of satisfaction are less likely to sue (6). Several studies show that continuous support by a trained doula helps to increase overall satisfaction with the birth experience (7). When the doula increases communication with the physician, assists with informed consent for interventions, and provides effective labor support, mother’s satisfaction with the birth is increased. The intervention of the doula may carryover into increased satisfaction with the physician and possibly fewer lawsuits.
4. Observing progression of labor. Undoubtedly, physicians and nurses see more labors and births than a professional doula. However, observation of those labors is intermittent. Doulas have the opportunity to be with women for the entire labor. We see the progression of labor more clearly and are attuned to subtle changes in the woman’s behavior and contraction pattern. When a physician asks the doula about the mother’s labor, the doula is able to report detailed changes. With my observations and the physician’s expertise, it is then possible to forecast more accurately. MCP’s need to make decisions about doing a cesarean on another patient, going to the clinic, or seeing their child’s recital. Physicians often do not realize that the doula is a source of information about the patient that is beneficial to their decision making.
5. Lower intervention rates and healthier outcomes: The recent Cochrane Collaboration review of over 15,000 mothers in 22 studies confirmed that mothers with a trained doula are less likely to have certain interventions (7). Thus, the complications that may occur as a result of their use do not happen. Of course, the practice style of the physician and hospital policies are influential factors that have more impact than the doula’s presence (7). However, the fewer interventions that are used, the healthier the outcomes are for both mother and child.
6. Increased profit with a standard reimbursement rate: Mothers who have doulas are less likely to use pharmacological methods of pain relief and receive fewer interventions (6). When the physician receives a preset reimbursement rate for a delivery, there may be more profit when fewer interventions are used (8,9). The same is true for hospitals that are billed and reimbursed separately from physician fees. This is only a benefit when charges are not itemized or reimbursement is an underpayment of the actual cost.
7. Informed refusal. When patients are uncooperative, the doula can be blamed for their behavior. However, it is more likely that mothers and fathers with defensive attitudes hire doulas (10). Doulas are just not influential enough to change lifelong preferences about physicians or hospitals. (This also assumes that doulas are against hospital birth – which is not true.) Those patterns of behavior and beliefs are set long before doula services have begun. The professional doula’s role is to support the mother in her decisions even if it is not what the physician or midwife would want. Because the doula is not encouraging the patient to be compliant, the doula can be seen as part of the problem.
Informed refusal is a part of informed consent and the right of every patient. However, it can appear that the patient is personally distrustful of the physician or that their actions show a lack of care for their child. Misunderstandings often occur because this is an emotionally charged event for both patient and doctor. Sometimes the doula is highly skilled at negotiating the communication so that both parties understand one another even though they disagree. No matter when it occurs, informed refusal is a risk for both doctor and patient. The doctor is being asked to practice in a way that is less than preferred and the patient may experience a drop in the physician’s good feelings towards her. The benefit for the physician to having a doula present is to facilitate communication and to realize there is a person close to the patient who can understand the physician’s legitimate concerns.
8. Early labor monitoring. When the professional doula is at home with the laboring mother, she is able to provide reassurance. Mothers may choose to stay at home until active labor is established rather than arriving too early by hospital standards. With the new recognition of active labor commencing at 6 centimeters, early labor monitoring becomes even more important. Because of her level of skill the professional doula is also capable of recognizing overt signs of an impending delivery or emergency that family members may miss. The doula can recommend calling the triage center for advice or emergency services when imminent help is required. The doula’s skilled observation provides an additional level of safety for the patient that may benefit the physician.
9. Mitigate socially awkward situations: Physicians are often required to get to know several patients in rapid succession. Labor often includes meeting and interacting with extended family. Not all patients or providers are socially skilled and not all situations are easy for people to get along. While the doula, nurse, midwife and physician are all professionals, influences of family structure, language, culture, exhaustion, and personality converge to create a number of challenging and awkward social situations. When the doula knows the family and the mother’s desires, she can head off or smooth over interpersonal problems for the physician. Simply introducing everyone properly may defuse tension.
Relationships between doulas and physicians can be tricky. The doula’s presence indicates a desire on the part of the patient to be involved in decision making and to receive individualized care. The doula is the only professional on the birth team who is not beholden to the physician or the hospital, but to the patient. However, this part of the doula’s role – to increase communication, understanding, and respect between physician and patient is a benefit to the doctor. Doulas increase patient satisfaction rates in a multitude of ways, which is also a benefit to physicians. When doctors understand how professional doulas benefit them and utilize their expertise, they can make the birth less stressful for all concerned.
NOTE: Originally I wrote this post as an opinion piece for a journal. But the feedback I got was that it was more opinion than research so it was more suited to a blog. It’s 1400 words, which is too long for a blog post but I didn’t want to omit anything I felt was relevant. With the release of ACOG’s statement last week, I thought it was a good time to publish this essay.
1. Klein, M.C., Liston, R., Fraser, W.D., Baradaran, N., Hearps, S. J., Tonkinson, J., Kaczorowsky, J., Brant, R. Attitudes of the New Generation of Canadian Obstetricians: How do they differ from their predecessors? Birth 2011;38:129-139.
2. Klein, M.C. Many women and providers are unprepared for an evidence- based, educated conversation about birth. J Perinat Edu 2011; 20:185-187.
3. Jena, A.B., Seabury, S., Lakdawalla, D., Chandra, A. Malpractice Risk According to Physician Specialty New Engl J Med 2011; 629-636
4. Morton, C., Clift, E. Birth Ambassadors, Praeclarus Press 2014; 4:210
5. Hodnett, E.D. Pain and women’s satisfaction with the experience of childbirth: a systematic review. Am J Obstet Gynecol 2002;186:S160-72
6. Stelfox, H.T., Gandhi, T.K., Orav, E.J., Gustafson M.L. The relation of patient satisfaction with complaints against physicians and malpractice lawsuits. Am J Med, 2005; 118:126-133.
7. Hodnett, E.D., Gates, S., Hofmeyr, G.J. & Sakala, C. Continuous support for women during childbirth. Cochrane Database of Syst Rev 2013
8. Chapple, W., Gilliland, A.L., Li, D., Shier, E., Wright, E. An economic model of the benefits of professional doula labor support in Wisconsin births. WMJ 2013;112:58-64.
9. Kozhimannil, K.B., Hardeman, R. R., Attanasio, L. B., Blauer-Peterson, C., O’Brien, M. Doula care, birth outcomes, and costs among Medicaid beneficiaries. Am J Public Health 2013; 103:e1-9
10. Gilliland, A.L. Nurses, doulas, and childbirth educators: Working together for common goals. J Perinat Edu 1998;7:18-24.
11. Safe prevention of the primary cesarean delivery. Obstetric Care Consensus No. 1. American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. Obstet. Gynecol. 2014; 123: 693-711.