Surgery and medication each offer a generally safe and effective approach for managing second-trimester fetal demise, according to Sarah W. Prager, MD.

Dr. Sarah Prager, University of Washington, Seattle

Dr. Sarah Prager

Therefore, in the absence of clear contraindications in settings where both options are available, patient preference should prevail, Dr. Prager, director of the family planning division and family planning fellowship at the University of Washington, Seattle, said at the annual clinical and scientific meeting of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists.

However, shared decision-making is imperative, she said.

Shared decision-making “can be extremely important for satisfaction with this process,” she said, explaining that provider-driven decisions can be paternalistic and often are based on what the provider might do in the same situation.

“But that may not be what the patient wants,” she added.

Conversely, patient-led decision-making can lead to information overload.

“She’s coming to you because you’re the expert. She wants your opinion on this,” Dr. Prager said, noting that sharing the process through “information transfer” allows for the “best, most appropriate decision” to be made.

“Patient engagement is the practice of actively involving and supporting the patient in health care and treatment decision-making activities, and this is really what I’m talking about,” she said, adding that patient engagement is “critically important in many situations, and especially in the setting of pregnancy loss.”

That’s because patients feel powerless in this situation, she explained. Engaging them in the decision-making process can “give them a little bit of that power back” by respecting autonomy, enhancing agency, improving health status, reducing decisional conflict, and limiting test use, thereby improving overall satisfaction.

Two randomized control trials, each designed to compare surgical management and medical management for terminations at up to 20 weeks of gestation, highlight the role and importance of patient preference, Dr. Prager said.

The first – a 2004 study – was stopped early because of slow enrollment, with 29 of 47 eligible subjects declining randomization. Among 93% of those who declined, there was a preference for surgical management. The second, a 2010 study, enrolled 122 patients after 107 of 229 eligible subjects (47%) declined randomization, again because most (67%) preferred surgery (BJOG. 2004;111[2]:148-53; BJOG. 2010;117[12]:1512-20).

Reasons given for preferring surgical management included less psychological trauma and deeper anesthesia, whereas reasons given for induction preference included less wait time and a desire to avoid general anesthesia.

Helping patients make the best decision requires a discussion about potential complications for each approach, Dr. Prager said.

Surgical management, which involves dilation and evacuation (D&E), is used for about 95% of second-trimester abortions overall, but medical management may be underreported, particularly for management of pregnancy loss, Dr. Prager said. “We don’t have clear statistics” in that setting.

The overall rate of complications is low for surgical management, with data suggesting a rate of up to 4%. Uterine perforation occurs in 0.2%-0.3% of procedures, cervical laceration occurs in up to 1%, and retained placenta occurs in less than 1%, she said.

The complication rate for medical management – induction with either misoprostol or mifepristone + misoprostol (the latter is the recommended approach) – is much higher at up to 29%, but that includes retained placenta, which happens in up to 10% of procedures. Uterine rupture occurs in 0.04%-0.28% of procedures, she said.

“With either surgical management or medication management of pregnancy loss, we need to keep in mind the possibility of disseminated intravascular coagulation, which is rare, but certainly possible,” she said.

Other factors that may be important to patients deciding between surgical and medical management for second-trimester fetal loss include:

  • Anesthesia, which is local plus intravenous sedation for surgery, compared with IV narcotics and potentially an epidural or other type of regional anesthesia for medical management.
  • Duration, which is 5-20 minutes for surgery, compared with 6-11 hours with mifepristone + misoprostol, and up to 20 hours with misoprostol alone.
  • Location, which is done on an outpatient basis for surgery, compared with inpatient care for medical management.
  • Cost, which is $1,000-$5,000 for surgery vs. $3,000-$9,000 for medical management.
  • Contact with the fetus, which typically involves the possibility of partial viewing and an opportunity to obtain footprints as a memento if an intact procedure is attempted during surgery vs. full viewing and possibly holding the baby after delivery following medical management. This is often the key deciding factor for patients.
  • Provider factors, in terms of training and skills. Surgery involves a need for specialized training, whereas medical management requires no extra training, she said, adding that “not all ob.gyns. across the country are competent or comfortable providing a D&E, particularly in the later second-trimester time period.” However, the availability of family planing fellowships will increase the number of centers across the country where both options will be available, she noted.
  • The possibility of fetal autopsy, which surgery often (but not always) allows, but medical management always allows.
  • Involvement level, which is provider heavy for surgery vs. patient heavy for medical management.

“Moving toward an evidence-based, patient-centered care model requires a lot of us, as providers, to really work at dropping our assumptions. We often have strong opinions about what we think we would do in that setting, and it can be tricky for us to set that aside and allow patients to really ask questions and discuss their values so that we can then advocate best for our patients after they know exactly what their options are,” she said.

Dr. Prager reported having no relevant disclosures.