Consumer Reports: Hospitals perform too many C-sections for low-risk births

The most common surgery performed in U.S. hospitals is the C-section, and a Consumer Reports study suggests many of those surgeries may be unnecessary.

Nearly a third of babies born in the U.S., almost 1.3 million, are delivered by cesarean section, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The Consumer Reports study looked at 1,300 hospitals and found that, although most women prefer to deliver vaginally, the deciding factor in many cases is the hospital itself. Almost half the C-sections performed in the country are not clinically necessary, according to the report, and rates for the procedure can be drastically different among hospitals.

While the study showed regional variation in C-section rates, it also found substantial differences among hospitals in close proximity to one another. More worrisome, Consumer Reports found data about C-section rates difficult to obtain, as many hospitals do not make such data public.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services set a rate of 23.9% of low-risk births for C-sections. The study found that only 44% of national hospitals meet this target. “Almost all hospitals should be able to achieve a rate under 24%, and some hospitals should be able to aim even lower,” says Elliott Main, M.D., medical director of the California Maternal Quality Care Collaborative.

Consumer Reports supports increased transparency of C-section rates, both as a way of helping expectant mothers to reduce their odds of an unnecessary procedure and as a motivating factor for hospitals and physicians dragging their feet over confronting the issue. “Our goal is to get women thinking about the hospital too, since the hospital you choose can play a big role in determining your risk of a C-section,” said Doris Peter, Ph.D., director of the Consumer Reports Health Ratings Center, in an announcement accompanying the study’s release.