In the 1970s, the March of Dimes Committee on Perinatal Health published its seminal “Toward Improving the Outcome of Pregnancy” guidance, which outlined a model for perinatal health regionalization to address maternal, fetal, and neonatal deaths.1 In this model, regionalized perinatal systems assign hospitals levels of care based on their birth volume, resources, and staff specializations; ensure women give birth in risk-appropriate facilities; and facilitate emergency maternal and neonatal transport. These designations indicate increased capacity to care for patients with high-risk conditions and/or severe complications that arise during pregnancy, birth, and postpartum.
While these strategies have primarily focused on neonatal care, a growing number of professional organizations and health providers have recognized the need for distinct maternal levels of care to adequately address maternal health.2-4
In 1976, North Carolina established 6 perinatal care regions.5 In 1994, the North Carolina Administrative Code documented requirements for facilities seeking neonatal levels of care designations.6 The state does not, however, have formal regulations that define maternal levels of care. The adoption of maternal levels of care was recommended in NCIOM’s April 2020 Healthy Moms, Healthy Babies Report and is currently being explored by the NCIOM Task Force on Maternal Health.7
Many studies have shown the association between risk-appropriate neonatal placement and/or maternal transport and improved neonatal outcomes. For example, a 1982 study of low-birth-weight infants in New York showed a dramatically lower mortality rate for low-birth-weight babies born in hospitals with Level III neonatal intensive care units (128.5 deaths per 1,000 live births) compared to those born in hospitals with Level II (168.1) and Level I (163) neonatal intensive care units.8 Other studies demonstrate that very low-birth weight (VLBW, <1500 grams) infants especially benefit from Level III NICUs.9-11
Similarly, there is evidence that women with high-risk conditions are best served in high-level facilities with specialty and subspecialty services. One study found that women with high-risk health conditions had about nine times the risk (relative to women who did not have high-risk conditions) of severe maternal morbidity in hospitals that have a small proportion of high-risk patients.12 Comparatively, hospitals that have a large proportion of high-risk patients only had about six times the risk of poor maternal health outcomes. Other studies suggest that hospital birth volume, facility level (or rating), and provider density are correlated with maternal health outcomes.13-16
In 2015, the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecologists and the Society for Maternal-Fetal Medicine published the first comprehensive framework for defining maternal levels of care. The most recent version of this obstetric care consensus was published in 2019, further clarifying designation criteria and applying lessons from states that had begun implementing levels of care specific to maternal health needs.2 Since 2010, 16 states have published guidelines defining at least three levels of maternal care. Four of these states (Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, and Texas) have formalized these guidelines in state legislation.17 Thirteen states regulate maternal levels of care designations through state agencies, and nine of these states mandate designation in some way. For instance, while Illinois authorized a public act that requires the establishment of a classification for maternal care, Texas included a section in its administrative code that predicates Medicaid reimbursement on each hospital receiving a maternal level of care designation.18,19
Perinatal care encompasses maternal, fetal, and neonatal health. While systems of perinatal regionalization have made incredible strides in reducing mortality and morbidity for the most fragile newborns, it is important to remember and address the medical needs of pregnant and birthing women. While the method of implementation among states may vary, applying a regionalization framework specific to maternal risk can support improved maternal health outcomes.