What Explains Variation in Cesarean Rates Between Hospitals?

March 27, 2013

While cesarean rates (which reached an all-time high in 2007) are known to vary widely by state, they also vary quite a bit by hospital. One common explanation for this has been that different hospitals have different c-section rates because they see different types of patients – patients who are sicker or healthier, or more likely to have complications requiring cesarean.

In an article published in PLOS ONE, researchers report findings from a study designed to look at other factors that influence cesarean rates. The authors looked at birth certificate and hospital discharge data in Massachusetts to determine which factors were linked to cesarean rates at each hospital.

The researchers focused on first births of single, non-breech births in Massachusetts hospitals from the beginning of 2004 through the end of 2006. They report that at the hospital level, the percent of cesarean deliveries varied between 14.0 percent and 38.3 percent (average of 26.4 percent). Then they adjusted for health and sociodemographic factors, like labor induction and maternal age, that are linked to higher rates of cesarean.

They found, predictably, that individual risk for cesarean varied by demographic, socioeconomic, pregnancy, and preexisting medical conditions. After they adjusted for these factors, though, there was still significant variation in rates between hospitals that could not be explained by those medical and personal risk factors.

While the authors did not set out to explain why this variation occurred, they note that it has been observed in other studies (such as in Arizona, and in military hospitals), and that contributing factors may include liability- and insurance-related factors, whether a woman delivers at a teaching hospital, the provider’s approach to delivery, hospital practices related to labor induction and augmentation, and others. They conclude that additional research is needed on hospital characteristics to figure out what is driving variability between hospitals and reduce the influence of non-clinical factors on women’s risk of cesarean delivery.

Finding out the rate of cesarean sections at any given hospital can be difficult, as is understanding why the rates are high in any given situation. At her  website, CesareanRates.com, consumer advocate Jill Arnolds attempts to bring together the available statistics, allowing users to compare cesarean rates by state and by individual hospital.

If you’re interested in finding out more about what you can do increase your chances of having a vaginal birth, see this tip sheet from Childbirth Connection.

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