reported Marcela C. Smid, MD, of the University of Utah, Salt Lake City, and her associates.
The stressful demands of newborn care, postpartum depression and anxiety, sleep deprivation, and other factors “may result in the ‘perfect storm’ leading to drug use, relapse, overdose, and death,” they cautioned.
Dr. Smid and associates conducted a retrospective cohort study of all pregnancy-associated deaths occurring in Utah between January 2005 and December 2014 using data from the Utah Perinatal Mortality Review Committee database. The authors defined pregnancy-associated deaths as those occurring during or within 1 year of the end of pregnancy, but not pregnancy related. A total of 136 pregnancy-associated deaths, including 69 pregnancy-related deaths, were identified.
During the 10-year span of the study, the three most common causes of pregnancy-associated deaths were drugs (n = 35, 26%), thromboembolic disease (n = 18, 13%), and automobile accidents (n = 17, 12%). The remainder of deaths in this group (n = 66, 49%) were caused by cardiac conditions, hypertension, infection, homicide or suicide, hemorrhage, malignancy, or other unspecified causes.
Over the study period, the authors observed a 76% increase in the pregnancy-associated mortality ratio; overall drug-induced pregnancy-associated mortality increased by 200% – from 4 in 2005 to 12 in 2014. About 77% of the drug-induced deaths were caused by opioids. Of the 35 women with drug-induced deaths, 54% were accidental overdoses, 26% were intentional, and the remaining 20% could not be determined.
Of key interest, a detailed review of the records showed that women were not systematically screened for drug use with validated screening tools. In fact, most women received no mental health or drug treatment, nor were they prescribed pharmacotherapy for the treatment of opioid use disorder. Those who died primarily in the late postpartum period and were known to have a drug-induced, pregnancy-associated death already had discontinued obstetrical health care. These findings are consistent with other published studies in Maryland and Georgia.
A 2018 study by Schiff et al. in Massachusetts reported a corresponding decrease in the rate of overdose deaths among those who were receiving pharmacotherapy, especially during the late postpartum period (). Dr. Smid and colleagues characterized their findings, in which those with drug-induced deaths were not receiving any kind of treatment, as “a missed opportunity for potentially lifesaving interventions.”
The authors considered their assessment of awareness of drug misuse prior to drug-induced death among obstetric health care providers to be their “unique contribution.” While the majority of women included in the study had known drug misuse or substance abuse disorder, for the 46% of who experienced drug-induced death, this use was not noted at any time during their obstetric care.
The primary limitations of the study were the inability to systematically capture insurance status or coverage lapses. The investigators also could not identify those who carried insurance at the time of their death or to what extent, if any, insurance status proved a barrier to access of mental health or addiction specialty care.
Although the Utah Perinatal Mortality Review Committee characterized 85% of drug-induced pregnancy-associated deaths as unpreventable between 2005 and 2014, new onset or exacerbations of conditions such as depression, anxiety, chronic pain, and substance use disorders generally have been acknowledged to occur both during pregnancy and post partum. Beginning in 2015, the committee began classifying drug-induced deaths as pregnancy related.
Dr. Smid and colleagues speculated that, with ongoing discussion of this topic at national mortality meetings, this kind of important change in classification may be implemented in other states in the future. Such a move would aid in determining the preventability of deaths, thereby leading to a growing awareness of and screening for drug use, both during and after pregnancy. Improved access to mental health and addiction services, as well as increased support for new mothers beyond the traditional 6-week postpartum visit, especially, would be highly beneficial.
Recommendations also have been recently published by the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists and the Council on Patient Safety in Women’s Health safety bundle committee on the care of pregnant and postpartum women with opioid use disorders. Separately, ACOG published a committee opinion that reconceptualizes “postpartum care as the extended ‘fourth trimester.’ ” It has further urged that “continued engagement and coordinated care for women with preexisting conditions, including substance use disorder and mental health conditions, is imperative” for reducing severe maternal morbidity and mortality.
“Our results support the mounting evidence that pregnant, and particularly postpartum, women with history of drug use and overdose, psychiatric comorbidities, prior suicide attempt, and polysubstance use need enhanced and ongoing care,” Dr. Smid and associates wrote.
They suggested that additional studies also are needed to better comprehend in what context pregnant and postpartum women are experiencing drug use, relapse, and overdose. “These studies are urgently needed to develop effective strategies to reduce the catastrophic event of maternal death.”
Dr. Smid is supported by Women’s Reproductive Health Research Career Development Program. The authors reported no other financial relationships or potential conflicts of interest.