When a pregnancy ends in an infant or mother suffering severe or fatal injuries, it can take a terrible emotional toll on the family. But how does the heartbreaking event affect the mental health of the obstetrician or midwife in charge?
Danish researchers at the University of Southern Denmark set out to answer this question and to better understand the impact of traumatic childbirth on the clinicians’ professional and personal identities. To do this, they asked Danish obstetricians and midwives to complete a survey and to participate in interviews.
The findings showed that feelings of blame and guilt dominate when midwives and obstetricians struggle to deal with the aftermath of a traumatic childbirth, but such events also made them think more about the meaning of life and helped mold them into better midwives and doctors.
“To our knowledge, this is the largest study to investigate obstetric healthcare professionals’ experiences with traumatic childbirth. Self-blame and guilt appear to dominate when midwives and obstetricians struggle to cope with the aftermath of a traumatic childbirth, which was a consistent finding regardless of time since the event,” said Katja Schrøder, R.M., M.Sc. Health of the University of Southern Denmark.
“This could indicate that although the current patient safety programs have promoted a more just and learning culture with less blaming and shaming after adverse events, the personal feeling of guilt remains a burden for the individual healthcare professional.”
The study involved 1,237 health care professionals, of whom 85 percent had been involved in a traumatic childbirth. Although blame from patients, peers, or official authorities was feared (and sometimes experienced), inner struggles with guilt and existential thoughts were more prominent.
Feelings of guilt were reported by 49 percent of respondents, and 50 percent reported that the traumatic childbirth had made them think more about the meaning of life. In addition, 65 percent felt that they had become a better midwife or doctor due to the traumatic incident.
Schrøder added that existential topics, such as thinking more about the meaning of life and experiencing personal growth of an emotional or spiritual nature, have not been previously studied in this context, and that these seem to play a significant role in the wake of these events.
The findings may be helpful for efforts aimed at providing adequate support to healthcare professionals after dealing with traumatic childbirth. This will benefit not only professionals but also patients because the physical and emotional state of clinicians affects the quality and the safety of patient care.
The study is published in the journal Acta Obstetricia et Gynecologica Scandinavica.