Poor Maternity and Neonatal Care at Military Hospitals
In the US, military hospitals provide care to 1.6 million active service members and their families. The responsibility is enormous, especially when new life is being brought into the world. However, military hospitals are the site of twice as many birth injuries as civilian hospitals are, indicating worrisome systemic lapses in military healthcare.
In 2011, 239 newborns at military hospitals suffered some type of trauma, as compared to the national average of 107. The problem at these hospitals is apparently twofold; it includes a lack of appropriate medical care (which sometimes may cross into medical malpractice), and a lack of accountability for a poor level of care.
Malpractice is clearly a problem in government health services. Between 2006 and 2010, the U.S. government paid out $100 million in malpractice claims for various types of healthcare, including neonatal care. If active service members were allowed to sue for negligence in military hospitals, the U.S. Congressional Budget Office estimates that that figure would triple. For this reason, many patients in military hospitals never take their claims to court. Countless women, however, have recounted stories of delivery-room doctors ignoring their needs, or providing inadequate care.
The Need for Accountability
A recent report made by a panel of military members and civilian experts to the Secretary of Defense revealed that military medical providers were wary of reporting oversights and errors in hospitals. The reason was simple: a fear of retribution.
When a doctor or a nurse feels uncomfortable reporting unsafe practices, those practices continue unchecked. It’s difficult to know exactly how deep those lapses run, as many military hospitals fail to perform the safety inquiries that are required (in cases of unexpected deaths or injuries) by the Defense Department.
If family members are shocked at poor treatment of mother and child, they may be even more shocked when there is no follow-up. Between 2011 and 2013, there were 239 unexpected deaths in American military hospitals, but only 100 of those were reported to the Pentagon. The Defense Department report emphasized that hospitals must improve channels of communication, and conduct thorough investigations, where required, if the level of care is to improve.
A related problem is financial; military hospitals are often so concerned with meeting their budgets that they prioritize balancing the books over providing quality care. Overspending can lead to a serious talk with one’s superior, but the same is not true in the case of providing poor care. Officials in the Department of Defense believe that those priorities must be realigned.
To improve care, officials recommend that military hospitals collect data on treatments and death rates, and then make that data (including data on maternity and neonatal care) public. To assess their weak spots, hospitals should run full investigations of their safety practices. Only then can infant fatalities and injuries in military hospitals be reduced.