© Victoria Morgan 2016

Focus on outcomes for mothers and babies

This is the final blog in a series of four that looks at success factors for improving clinical quality in maternity services - so mothers and their babies enjoy great care and staff enjoy their work.  Here, I consider why outcomes measures are important and three steps for the effective use of outcomes measures to improve quality.  To hear about the latest developments in maternity quality improvement, sign up for monthly maternity news to your inbox.


Why outcomes?

Value in healthcare is about achieving ‘the best outcomes for patients at the lowest cost’ (Porter & Lee 2013).  This common goal unites all those involved in healthcare (Porter 2010).  Outcomes – what mothers and their babies need – are key to the assessment of value in maternity services.

Often maternity services indicators measure process (e.g., the number of clinical staff trained in smoking cessation) or activity (say, the number of smokers referred at booking).  Whilst these measures may be important in local quality improvement projects looking to tackle specific issues, Porter argues that our primary focus needs to be on outcomes (e.g., the stillbirth rate).


Let’s look at each of these three steps as they apply to the Every Birth a Safe Birth model for maternity clinical networks.

Step 1:  measure outcomes

When measuring outcomes consider:

  • both mother and baby across all phases of maternity care
  • all dimensions of quality
  • near and longer term outcomes

 Maternity services are unique in healthcare in that the mother’s and her baby’s health are deeply intertwined during all phases of care:  antenatally, during the intrapartum period and postnatally.  What affects one invariably affects the other.  Therefore, outcomes indicators should reflect each phase of care for mother and baby.

Cover all dimensions of quality. Six dimensions of clinical quality are widely recognised (Institute of Medicine 2001).  For some dimensions, collating a set of indicators is straightforward.  Safety, for example, might include infection rates or intrapartum stillbirth.  But what about equity?  Is this systematically reflected in local outcomes measures?

Measures should encompass near and longer-term health: that is, a sufficient time period to encompass the ultimate results of care (Porter 2010).  In the UK, heart disease is the leading cause of maternal death during or up to six weeks after the end of pregnancy; mental health problems are a leading cause of death in pregnancy and the 12 months after birth (MBRRACE-UK 2016).  Therefore, measuring maternal mortality during both the near term (up to six weeks after the end of pregnancy) and longer term (up to 12 months after birth) is important in order to address the direct causes of maternal death.


Step 2:  report outcomes

To enable change, report outcomes:

  • using current data
  • at unit level
  • visually

Current data lets teams see how effective their changes to improve quality have been.  If an idea has not been effective, it can be stopped quickly - minimising the waste of resources.  If an idea is effective, it can be scaled up – increasing the impact of the change.

Unit level data can flag up improvements or problems at an early stage:  changes in outcomes at one unit can be lost when data is aggregated for the organisation as a whole.

It easier to visualise trends from a graph than a colour-coded data table; graphs show, at a glance, both the direction of the trend and the rate of change.



Step 3:  compare outcomes

To improve quality, outcomes must be reviewed and action taken.  Organisations that improve quality in the medium to long term tend to:

This type of collaborative approach is credited with: a 10% reduction in stillbirth rate and a 11.5% reduction in neonatal death rate in one year in Scotland (The Health Foundation 2015); and 293 fewer deaths than the 868 expected by six cardiac units in Boston, USA (Malenka & O’Connor 1998).

The Every Birth a Safe Birth model for maternity clinical networks supports teams to continuously improve the quality of maternity services through a focus on outcomes for mother and baby and the use of a tried and tested collaborative approach.