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Giving mom anesthesia to help turn a breech baby doesn't add costs

Near the end of a woman's pregnancy, obstetricians use ultrasound to check that the baby is poised to be born head-first. Since breech vaginal deliveries (with the feet or rear end first) are risky for both mom and child, many physicians opt to schedule a c-section if the baby isn't head-down at the end of pregnancy.

However, before they take that step, doctors can perform a procedure called an external cephalic version (or simply "version") to try to turn the baby. To do this, they push on the mother's pregnant abdomen while carefully monitoring the baby with ultrasound. In the past, women were not given anesthesia during this procedure, but recent research has shown that administering anesthesia can make versions more successful, perhaps because the medications help to relax the women's abdominal muscles and allow the physician to use less pressure. Unsurprisingly, moms who receive pain relief are also happier with the process than those who don't.

But there's a wrinkle: Some physicians have worried about the additional expense of using anesthesia for versions, since the anesthesiologist's time and the drugs used come with costs. Researchers from Stanford and Lucile Packard Children's Hospital decided to address this conundrum by analyzing whether the additional cost of anesthesia was offset by the savings from enabling more vaginal deliveries and avoiding some cesareans.

In our press release, Brendan Carvalho, MD, the lead author of the new research, explained the findings:

“[O]ur work shows that it doesn’t add significant costs, and most likely reduces overall costs because more women can avoid cesareans.”


The study found that using anesthesia increased average success rates of version procedures from 38 percent to 60 percent. Because it led to fewer cesareans, use of anesthesia also decreased the total cost of delivery by an average of $276; the range of cost differences estimated by the model extended from a $720 savings to a $112 additional cost.

Looking at the question of cost-effectiveness in a different way, the success rates of versions had to be improved at least 11 percent with anesthesia for the cost of the anesthesia to be negated, the researchers calculated.

So far, Carvalho said, Packard Children's is one of only a few Bay Area hospitals offering anesthesia for versions. But he hopes his team's findings will encourage more physicians to consider the practice, since it's good for both mothers' well-being and hospitals' bottom lines.

Previously: Should midwives take on risky deliveries?
Photo by Trevor Bair

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