Australia’s leading stillbirth research initiative calls for access to quality antenatal care and support for women during pandemic
A collaboration of Australia’s top stillbirth researchers has called for improved antenatal care during the COVID-19 pandemic, following the release of a national report that showed pregnant women were less likely to seek face-to-face antenatal appointments during 2020.
The latest report from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare “Antenatal care during COVID-19, 2020” summarises an analysis of antenatal care claims processed by Medicare from January to September 2020 in Australia.
The data showed that face-to-face antenatal services dropped by 120,000, or about 10%, in the first three quarters of 2020 compared to the same period in 2019. Although telehealth services replaced many face-to-face appointments, the data showed a 2% gap in service reduction.
Leading midwifery researcher and investigator at the Centre of Research Excellence in Stillbirth (Stillbirth CRE), Professor Caroline Homer , said it wasn’t clear from the data whether the telehealth appointments provided the same level of care as traditional face-to-face appointments.
“Evidence-based pregnancy guidelines from the Safer Baby Bundle initiative clearly show that the detection and management of fetal growth and awareness of baby’s movements can reduce the risk of stillbirth from 28 weeks’ pregnancy,” Professor Homer said.
“Our concern is that telehealth appointments may not provide the same level of care as face-to-face appointments, or women may not be as open about their concerns in this setting.”
Six babies are stillborn every day in Australia; a rate that has changed little in two decades. This is despite research indicating up to 30 per cent of stillbirths could be avoided with the provision of better care.
The Stillbirth CRE is coordinating a global study, called COCOON, to research how the pandemic has affected antenatal care worldwide, as well as bereavement support services for parents who experience stillbirth or the loss of a newborn.
Preliminary findings from the Australian maternity population, excluding those parents who had lost a baby, from November 2020 found that more than half of this sample experienced high or very high levels of anxiety, with 65% experiencing clinical systems indicative of an anxiety disorder.
Professor Vicki Flenady, Stillbirth CRE co-director, said COCOON’s preliminary findings, along with the data from the AIHW, demonstrate the need to improve care for pregnant women during pandemic restrictions and lockdowns.
“Our concern is that women facing anxiety about COVID-19 during their pregnancy may be at a higher risk of stillbirth if this anxiety translates into a reluctance to attend antenatal appointments or report changes in their baby’s movements to their health provider,” Professor Flenady said.
The COCOON study will continue in 2021 as the impact of the pandemic continues.
Women with concerns about changes in their baby’s movements from 28 weeks’ pregnancy or other pregnancy-related concerns should contact their maternity health professional.