Is there a problem with doula care?

Last week Choices in Childbirth released a report on doula care and insurance coverage. As someone who is deeply interested in the subject (and very opinionated on the specific barriers and possible solutions), I found it very interesting and even useful. Unsurprisingly, the report also became fodder for an anti-doula option piece. On Slate, Elissa Strauss wrote the very click-baity titled piece “More Doulas Can Lower the Cost of Childbirth. There’s Just One Problem.” My mom actually ended up sending my the link, asking me if I could believe what she wrote. I read it. I yawned a little. It was nothing I hadn’t heard before, but I think it’s still a good idea to address her article point by point.

Point #1:  Doulas aren’t regulated or licensed

Yep, this is totally true, and realistically, it is creating a major issue in many ways. In fact, Strauss writes,

Anyone can call themselves a doula without any training, certification, or practice. I could declare myself a doula right now. So could you.

Some doula trainers that I totally respect and admire have pointed out the number of certifying organizations has increased exponentially in the last couple of years. Every program is a little different, some requiring more documentation than others, some having in-person trainings while others are mostly done online. Not every organization promotes certification, either. Certification can protect families by knowing that, absent any other regulations, the doula can be sanctioned by her certifying organization. I am a birth doula who was trained to be a doula in November of 2006 and have been certified through DONA International since August 2007. Currently, no doula organization is accredited, either; however, Lamaze International IS an accredited childbirth education program.

I have more opinions about this specific subject than can fit in this post, but parents can still find doulas who are held responsible in some way, shape or form. Which brings me to her next point:

Point #2: Some doulas resent certain protocols

OK, so this is a really sweeping generalization, and I’m not sure if it makes for a good argument about why doulas are in of themselves bad. However, yes, my experience in the last 9 years is that there are doulas who can push the limits of what a non-licensed professional can and should do. However, in the absence of a standardized Scope of Practice (I follow the scope and standard of practice as set forth by each certifying organization depending on which hat I’m wearing), it’s up to the hiring party to figure out what that needs to look like.

Point #3: They are biased!

This is a tricky as heck little paragraph. Strauss states,

With standardization, women, as well as insurers, could feel confident that the doula they hired would be providing them with sound advice. This means providing information that is accurate as well as unbiased. Doulas currently have a reputation as being advocates for intervention-free childbirth; for many of them, having an epidural is a sign of personal weakness and/or capitulation to the medical industry and maybe just a big, fat failure. (Note how the report mentioned above doesn’t distinguish between C-sections and epidurals in terms of their potential value to mothers.) There are some good—if often overstated—reasons to avoid epidurals, but there are also manygoodreasons to get one. It would be unfair to women to populate our labor and delivery units with doulas who insist that childbirth will not hurt too much if the mother just remains calm and breathes.

First of all, as I’ve stated before here, too often the discussion of pros and cons is labeled as being biased. As far as I know, at no point was the CiC report meant to be a comprehensive report on the use or overuse of maternity care interventions. If Strauss needs to be enlightened on evidenced based maternity practice, I’d suggest she start by looking at the groundbreaking Obstetric Care Consensus “Safe Prevention of the Primary Cesarean Delivery” released by AGOC and SMFM. Maternity care in the US needs to be be improved in all metrics, including cost.

Second, all humans are biased. All professionals are biased. However, some are better at recognizing their biases and at removing those biases from their day to day professional interactions. As a doula, I would never, ever talk a mom out of an epidural. Now, that’s different than telling a mom who has a baby’s head halfway out that the epidural might take longer than the one push needed to finish giving birth. No care providers, be they doulas, nurses, midwives, or doctors, should ever, ever, EVER disrespect or manipulate patients. Period.

Point #4: I didn’t have one

Whenever I read or hear discussions about public health policy, it’s really silly to bring any one person’s experience into the larger discussion. Really, it’s not how anything scientific ever gets done. Since Strauss didn’t have one, it’s a great reason to ignore a really well-done report, I guess. Or it’s not. Let’s go with this being a bad reason to ignore the report, ok?

Overall, the piece points out nothing that those of us who are working on doula care access don’t already know, namely that we have a lot of work to do on standardization and definitions before we can even talk about reimbursement. And on it’s face value, it’s possible that Strauss could have written a more thoughtful piece on the other issues that exist in doula care being covered health services. Instead, it comes across as a piece to justify her own rejection of doula care under the guise of commenting on the Choices in Childbirth/ Childbirth Connection report.

Interestingly enough, the use of doulas to improve a medicalized life experience have popped up in conversation about health care on the other side of the life continuum: Death. PBS’s Next Avenue brought up the topic this week. My ideal solution to gain access to doula care as a covered service recognizes that there is a need for emotional and physical support for patients in many different health care scenarios. A proper doula serves as a conduit, a guide, a translator, and a constant companion who is wholly invested in the emotional support of the patient and his or her family. Doulas fill the gaps.

My post is by no means meant to be a comprehensive discussion on the state or future of doula care. I do have very practical, actionable ideas on insurance coverage of doula services that I’d be happy to talk about with people in person. But just because a writer on the XX Blog thinks doulas are terrible, it’s no reason you should too.

Speaking of doulas, the non-profit I run, The BabyLove Alliance, Ltd, offers doula services on a sliding scale. Our very first Doula Information night is coming up on January 29th at 7pm at BabyLove at 4590 Scott Trail, Suite 102, Eagan, MN. Come meet our doulas (who aren’t pushy, btw), find out what makes our doula services more complete than anywhere else, and ask any questions you have about having a doula at the birth of your baby. Email or call Veronica at 651-200-3343 for more information. Spread the word!

Veronica Jacobsen, BA, CLC, CPST, LCCE, FACCE
Birth Doula, Certified Lactation Counselor, Child Passenger Safety Technician, Lamaze Certified Childbirth Educator, Fellow of the Academy of Certified Childbirth Educators

Opening BabyLove in September of 2011 has allowed me to build a space where all families can come to get good information in a caring, welcoming environment. I have found that not only do I love teaching more than ever, but I also really love running a business. Hopefully my passion for every aspect of BabyLove shines through.
I live in Richfield with my husband, and I am a mother of a two great children. When I can steal a few free moments, I love to go on adventures with my family, cook, garden, thrift, can, and craft.