Medical Technology

Study: Women with disabilities have more adverse maternal outcomes

Women with physical, intellectual, and sensory disabilities had higher risk for almost all pregnancy complications, obstetric interventions, and adverse outcomes, including severe maternal morbidity (SMM) and mortality compared to women without disabilities, according to an analysis of a large, retrospective cohort.

The findings, published in JAMA Network Open (2021;4[12]:e2138414 doi: 10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2021.38414), “may be a direct reflection of the challenges women with all types of disabilities face when accessing and receiving care, which is likely compounded by poorer preconception health,” suggested lead author Jessica L. Gleason, PhD, MPH, and co-authors, all from the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, National Institutes of Health, Bethesda, Md.

“Women with disabilities have long been ignored in obstetric research and clinical practice,” added Hilary K. Brown, PhD, from the University of Toronto, in an accompanying editorial. “Inclusion of disability indicators needs to be the norm – not the exception – in health administrative data so that these disparities can be regularly tracked and addressed.”

The investigators used data from the Consortium on Safe Labor (CSL), a retrospective cohort of deliveries from 12 U.S. clinical centers between Jan. 2002 and Jan. 2008, to analyze obstetric interventions and adverse maternal outcomes in women with and without disabilities.

The analysis included a total of 223,385 women, mean age 27.6 years, of whom 2,074 (0.9%) had a disability, and 221,311 did not. Among those with disabilities, 1,733 (83.5%) were physical, 91 (4.4%) were intellectual, and 250 (12.1%) were sensory. While almost half (49.4%) of the women were White, 22.5% were Black, 17.5% were Hispanic, and 4.1% were Asian or Pacific Islander.

Outcomes were analyzed with three composite measures:

After adjustment for covariates, women with disabilities had higher risk of pregnancy-related complications. This included a 48% higher risk of mild pre-eclampsia and double the risk of severe pre-eclampsia/eclampsia. The composite risk of any pregnancy complication was 27% higher for women with physical disabilities, 49% higher for women with intellectual disabilities, and 53% higher for women with sensory disabilities.

The findings were similar for labor, delivery, and postpartum complications, showing women with disabilities had higher risk for a range of obstetrical interventions, including cesarean delivery – both planned and intrapartum (aRR, 1.34). Additionally, women with disabilities were less likely to have a cesarean delivery that was “solely clinically indicated” (aRR, 0.79), and more likely to have a cesarean delivery for “softer” mixed indication (aRR, 1.16), “supporting a possible overuse of cesarean delivery among women with disability,” they suggested.

Women with disabilities also had a higher risk of postpartum hemorrhage (aRR, 1.27), blood transfusion (aRR, 1.64), and maternal mortality (aRR, 11.19), as well as individual markers of severe maternal morbidity, such as cardiovascular events (aRR, 4.02), infection (aRR, 2.69), and venous thromboembolism (aRR, 6.08).

The authors speculate that the increased risks for women with disabilities “may be the result of a combination of independent risk factors, including the higher rate of obstetric intervention via cesarean delivery, under-recognition of women with disabilities as a population with higher-risk pregnancies, and lack of health care practitioner knowledge or comfort in managing pregnancies among women with disabilities.”

Brown noted in her commentary that there is a need for better education of health care professionals in this area. “Given that 12% of reproductive-aged women have a disability, that pregnancy rates are similar among women with and without disabilities, and that women with disabilities are at elevated risk of a range of adverse maternal outcomes, including severe maternal morbidity and maternal mortality, disability modules should be a mandatory component of education for obstetricians and midwives as well as other obstetrical health care professionals.”

Calling the study “a serious wake-up call,” Monika Mitra, PhD, told this publication that the findings highlight the need for “urgent attention” on improving obstetric care for people with disabilities “with a focus on accessibility and inclusion, changing clinical practice to better serve disabled people, integrating disability-related training for health care practitioners, and developing evidence-based interventions to support people with disabilities during this time.” The associate professor and director of the Lurie Institute for Disability Policy, in Brandeis University, Waltham, Mass. said the risk factors for poor outcomes are present early in pregnancy or even preconception. “We know that disabled women report barriers in accessing health care and receive lower-quality care compared to nondisabled women and are more likely to experience poverty, housing and food insecurity, educational and employment barriers, abuse, chronic health conditions, and mental illness than women without disabilities.”

She noted that the study’s sample of people with disabilities was small, and the measure of disability used was based on ICD-9 codes, which captures only severe disabilities. “As noted in the commentary by [Dr.] Brown, our standard sources of health administrative data do not give us the full picture on disability, and we need other, more equitable ways of identifying disability based, for example, on self-reports of activity or participation limitations if we are to be able to understand the effects on obstetric outcomes of health and health care disparities and of social determinants of health. Moreover, researchers have generally not yet begun to incorporate knowledge of the experiences of transgender people during pregnancy, which will impact our measures and study of obstetric outcomes among people with disabilities as well as the language we use.”

The study was supported by the Intramural Research Program of the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD). The study authors and Brown reported no conflicts of interest. Mitra receives funding from the NICHD and the National Institute on Disability, Independent Living for research on pregnancy outcomes among people with disabilities.

This article originally appeared on, part of the Medscape Professional Network.

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