- Kenny Lin, MD, MPH
The need to restrict in-person office visits in 2020 to slow the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic affected prenatal care, as some in-person visits were transitioned to virtual or visit intervals were extended. But how did the traditional U.S. prenatal visit schedule - monthly until 28 weeks, biweekly until 36 weeks, and weekly until delivery - become established in the first place? According to a recent review article in the American Journal of Obstetrics & Gynecology, the present-day schedule of 12-14 visits over the course of one's pregnancy was codified in 1930 in a booklet published by the Federal Children's Bureau, during an era when the majority of births occurred in the home. In the intervening century, the only major effort to change the frequency of prenatal appointments came in 1989, when an expert panel commissioned by the Department of Health and Human Services recommended a flexible, risk-based schedule:
Their proposed schedule included 7 visits for low-risk multiparous patients and 9 visits for low-risk nulliparous patients, with additional visits added as needed for high-risk patients based on medical and social risk factors. Interestingly, they suggested a phone visit for multiparous patients at 10 week's gestation, perhaps a first step toward what we now see as telemedicine for prenatal care.
The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) decided to reject the new schedule based on insufficient supporting evidence, even though "these recommendations implied maintaining an existing visit structure that was also not evidence-based." Then, as now, supporting evidence for prenatal interventions was limited. For example, though long endorsed by ACOG, counseling for healthy weight and weight gain in pregnancy was not officially recognized by the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force as a beneficial preventive service until last month.
A research study of the Google Trends database suggested that interest in planned community birth in the U.S. and the United Kingdom rose during the pandemic: the frequency of online search queries related to home birth increased by 239% and 53%, respectively, from March through November 2020 compared to the preceding year. According to an article by Dr. Gregory Lang and colleagues in the June 1 issue of American Family Physician, out-of-hospital births increased by 75% from 2004 to 2017, and in 2018 one out of every 61 newborns was delivered outside of a hospital. Planned community births are associated with a lower risk of obstetric interventions, including cesarean delivery, and, in "low-risk, vertex, singleton, term pregnancies in patients who have not had a previous cesarean delivery," neonatal outcomes may be similar to those in hospital settings.
In an accompanying editorial, Drs. Lawrence Leeman and Jessica Goldstein discussed ways to promote safety in community-based birth settings, including "adequate birth attendant training, access to emergency obstetric care, and careful risk assessment throughout the prenatal and intrapartum periods." The authors noted that regardless of whether they personally provide maternity care services, "family physicians play an important role in improving the safety of community birthing by offering counseling on the choice of birth setting, consultation, and collaboration during prenatal care, and by facilitating the process of maternal or newborn transfer [to the hospital] when necessary."