A new SOGC Clinical Practice Guideline No. 384 — Management of Breech Presentation at term has been published. It echoes the latest RCOG guideline in promoting accurate and supportive informed consent discussions. One of the main authors, Andrew Kotaska, has written extensively about this before: Informed consent and refusal in obstetrics: a practical ethical guide.
The SOGC guideline frames counselling around mode of childbirth for a breech baby within the context of human rights, especially in the ‘Key Messages:’
A woman’s choice of delivery mode should be respected.
The risk of planned vaginal breech birth is acceptable to some women with a term singleton breech fetus.
Women with a contraindication to a trial of labour should be advised to have a Caesarean section. Women choosing to labour despite this recommendation have a right to do so and should be provided with the best possible in-hospital care.
The summary of evidence related to safety is similar to that provided by the RCOG and a good reference for anyone counselling women about their breech childbirth options. A notable difference is the recommendation that,
Although data are limited, induction of labour with breech presentation does not appear to be associated with poorer outcomes than spontaneous labour.
As with the RCOG guideline, the new SOGC guideline recognises the importance of skill and experience to the safety of vaginal breech births. One of the SOGC’s summary statements is:
Vaginal breech birth requires a high degree of skill and support. To avoid the increased risk of out-of-hospital vaginal breech birth, women who choose planned vaginal breech birth should be accommodated in-hospital. To facilitate this, referral to more experienced centres, back-up on-call arrangements, and continuing medical training in vaginal breech birth skills should be promoted (very low).
(Very low refers to the quality of evidence in relation to this recommendation.) The RCOG also recommends antenatal referral to a centre with more skill and experience if necessary. Later in the SOGC text, the authors point out:
Many newly qualified obstetricians do not have the experience necessary to supervise a breech TOL [trial of labour]. Mentoring by more senior colleagues will be necessary if they are to attain these skills. As women will continue to request planned VBB and precipitous breech births occur in all settings, theoretical and hands-on breech birth training using models should remain part of basic obstetrical and midwifery training and of traingin programs such as ALARM, ALSO, and MORE ob.
I am particulary interested in recommendations made regarding how to support breech skill development because Competence and Expertise in Physiological Breech Birth was the topic of my PhD.
In our integrative review of the Effectiveness of vaginal breech birth training strategies (2017), inclusion of breech birth as part of an obstetric emergencies training package without support in practice was negatively associated with subsequent attendance at vaginal breech births, meaning practitioners attended fewer breech births. None of the evaluations of training packages included clinical outcomes, so it was not possible to determine whether they had an effect on safety. But the evidence suggests that support and mentorship in practice is likely to be key to giving less experienced practitioners the confidence to support breech births and gain the skills in practice.
Research on Expertise in physiological breech birth and the Deliberate acquisition of competence in physiological breech birth suggest that mentorship is indeed very important, but that this does not always take the form of senior colleagues supporting newly qualified colleagues. Maintaining classical hierarchies — such as expecting senior obstetricians to have breech skills while younger colleagues, or midwives, not to — can promote a form of alienating authority, which inhibits the development of generative expertise. Among practitioners who had deliberately developed competence to support breech births, younger, highly motivated practitioners often had to leave their primary clinical setting to acquire knowledge, skills and new techniques, which they brought back with them. The fact that they needed to do this suggests that they had not been being mentored at home.
One of the things I love about working in the UK is the long history of multi-disciplinary working. Although some teams work more effectively than others, it means that a person wishing to birth their breech baby with an experienced midwife in attendance does not have to choose between a home birth and an obstetrically-managed hospital birth. The obstricians I work with recognise the skill with physiological birth that their midwifery colleagues bring into the room — and we are grateful for their skill with surgical and very complicated births. We keep each other safe.
Given that referral to experienced centres is recommended in both RCOG and SOGC guidelines, more research is needed about how this works in various settings. What happens if a woman is referred elsewhere, but that hospital cannot or will not accept her for care? What are the economic implications? What defines an ‘experienced centre?’ In some hospitals, such as in Frankfurt Germany, the vaginal breech birth rate can be as high as 6-11% of the total birth rate due to women travelling to experienced providers, compared to 0.4% of the total birth rate in the UK.
We also need to consider and study other potential solutions to skill redevelopment. For example, why expect women to travel away from their known and trusted care team — why not shift professionals instead? I am employed primarily by a university, but I have a contract with one NHS Trust and am completing a contract with another by request, so that I can support them to develop their breech services. Mobility of providers also happens when obstetric trainees rotate between training centres. Sadly, I have heard numerous stories from senior obstetric trainees who have acquired breech experience in one hospital, only to be blocked from using that experience by their senior colleagues in another, a case of hierarchical and alienating authority. Similarly, many midwives have spent time abroad and delivered dozens of breech babies, but have had to stand aside when a woman is diagnosed in labour with a breech because the woman is now considered ‘an obstetric case.’ Women are often not informed when skill and experience is available because these remain invisible and under-utilised, especially in midwives and younger obstetric colleagues.
Throughout the UK, many new breech services are being developed. Breech clinics, like the one at the Royal London, ensure women get consistent counselling by breech-experienced practitioners. They also provide an environment where trainees can learn this skill. Many hospitals are developing ‘breech teams‘ so that vaginal breech births and those attending them can be supported by confident and competent members of the team — this includes experienced midwives. Training activities to support these new teams emphasise the elements available literature suggests will be effective — repetition and reflection — especially using birth videos for team debrief and simulation training. Gradually, we are supporting each other to reintroduce breech skills and consider new ways of sustaining them in order to be able to offer the care our countries’ leading guidelines recommend.
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