The Danger of Ignorance: Improving Patient Education to Save Women

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By Dr. Anne Wallis ~ Who remembers the first season ER episode "Love's Labours Lost"? The answer: pretty much anyone who ever watched ER! In the episode, a pregnant woman presents to the emergency room with a complaint of bladder problems, has a seizure and later dies. This was my first exposure to the hypertensive disorders of pregnancy. Eclampsia is, thankfully, rare, but it carries a high case fatality rate for the mother and/or the infant. Gestational hypertension and preeclampsia are far more common, affecting between 5% and 8% of all pregnancies in the US. Moreover, these conditions are on the rise and globally, these conditions are a leading cause of maternal and infant illness and death.

Obstetric providers are acutely aware of the dangers of preeclampsia because of its potential severity and rapidity of onset and progression, making high-quality prenatal care and patient education essential.

Unfortunately for patients, preeclampsia education is not a required component of prenatal care visits, though the Preeclampsia Foundation is working hard to change this. Perinatal practice guidelines currently published by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) and the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) provide no guidance to providers regarding patient education to help women recognize early signs and symptoms of preeclampsia, which could guide them to early diagnosis and improved clinical management.

Little is known about how many prenatal care providers discuss preeclampsia with their patients or if women understand what is communicated to them when such discussions occur. In response to this fundamental gap in knowledge, the Preeclampsia Foundation conducted an internet-based survey in March and April of 2008 to determine what women learned about preeclampsia in the context of prenatal care during their first pregnancy (2000-2008). The study is currently being submitted for publication, but the results were surprising and could help health care providers make informed decisions about patient education.

Only 40% of the women indicated that their prenatal care provider "definitely" described preeclampsia; 35% said they were "definitely not" given information about preeclampsia, and the remaining 16% did not remember. Of those who definitely had preeclampsia described to them, slightly more than half said they "fully understood the explanation," 37% "understood most of the explanation," while 15% either "understood some of the explanation," or did not remember.

Here is the really interesting bit: a full 75% of women who said they "definitely" received information on the signs and symptoms of preeclampsia and understood "fully" or "most" of the explanation, indicated that because of this information, they took one or more of the following actions:

Reported symptoms to their provider,
Went to the hospital,
Monitored their own blood pressure,
Complied with an order of bedrest,
Responded in some other way (e.g., made dietary changes, did their own research on preeclampsia).

However, of those who did not understand the explanations provided, only 6% took any action based on the presence of symptoms.

Survey participants tended to be well-educated and middle class, making the importance of what we learned from this online survey clear: even among well-educated, middle-to-high income women, a substantial proportion were not told about preeclampsia or did not fully understand their providers' explanations about the signs and symptoms of preeclampsia. Our findings likewise suggest that when women know how to recognize the signs and symptoms of preeclampsia and they understand the explanation offered, they are likely to act on that information and contact their provider or go to an emergency department.

It follows logically that women with fewer resources and less education, who may also be at higher risk for preeclampsia, may receive and retain even less information; and due to disparities in health care access, they may not have adequate resources to report symptoms to a provider.

Education about preeclampsia and related hypertensive disorders must continue into the post-partum period so that women can recognize prodromal symptoms of post-partum and late post-partum eclampsia. Most cases of eclampsia that develop after the first 48 postpartum hours are first seen in an emergency department. A woman with legitimate complaints who presents at an emergency department may leave untreated if the staff are emergency or trauma providers, not OB/GYN specialists. Thus, women not only need basic education in preeclampsia, but they require repeated education to ensure they understand the risks and can be empowered with knowledge that will allow them to advocate strongly for their own care.

We offer several recommendations based on our observations:

More research is needed to fully assess the health literacy, knowledge, attitudes, and behavior of pregnant women and to examine the practices of prenatal care providers;
ACOG/AAP guidelines for prenatal care should include more deliberate and detailed explanations of the hypertensive conditions of pregnancy;
At all prenatal visits, providers should clearly explain warning signs and symptoms with directions about what their patients should do if they experience or recognize any of the signs or symptoms.
All women should be hearing a strong public health message that they can and should be advocates for their own care.

Guest columnist Dr. Anne B Wallis, University of Iowa, also wrote on this topic in her blog, [bloga epidimiologica]. It's worth reading the longer version, especially if you like the science-y stuff.

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The Preeclampsia Registry

    The Preeclampsia Registry is a "Living Database" bringing together those affected, their family members, and researchers to advance knowledge and discover preventions and treatments for preeclampsia, HELLP syndrome, and related hypertensive disorders of pregnancy.

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