Importance: The death of a healthy term infant may signal patient safety and quality issues. Various initiatives aim to encourage clinicians to learn from these events, but little evidence exists regarding how exposure to an unexpected newborn death may alter clinician practice.
Objective: To examine the association between an unexpected newborn death and changes in obstetric and newborn procedures that may be used in response to potential fetal distress or newborn complications.
Design, setting, and participants: This cross-sectional study used difference-in-differences analysis of 2011 to 2017 US vital statistics data from 477 US counties experiencing an unexpected newborn death during the study period. All in-hospital live births in the 477 counties during the study period were included. Data were analyzed from September 2019 to September 2020.
Exposures: The death of an infant aged 0 to 7 days following an unremarkable pregnancy owing to causes other than birth defects, accidents/assaults, or sudden infant death syndrome.
Main outcomes and measures: Primary outcomes included binary variables capturing intervention in labor/delivery (induction, augmentation, cesarean delivery, forceps/vacuum) and procedures to avert and mitigate newborn complications (assisted ventilation, surfactant replacement therapy, antibiotics for suspected sepsis, neonatal intensive care unit admission).
Results: The main sample included 5.72 million births (2.54 million during preexposure time). Mean (SD) maternal age was 27.3 (5.8) years; 67% of mothers were White, and 12% were Black. Associations varied across the 4 estimated models. Following an unexpected newborn death, there was no significant increase in the probability of cesarean delivery in the full sample model (0.28 percentage points [pp]; 95% CI, -0.01 to 0.57 pp), but a significant increase in the other 3 models, with values ranging from 0.55 pp (95% CI, 0.21 to 0.88 pp) in the full sample model with matching to 0.66 pp (95% CI, 0.13 to 1.19 pp) in the 1-hospital county subsample with matching. There was a significant increase in the probability of newborn assisted ventilation in the full sample model with matching (0.46 pp; 95% CI, 0.08 to 0.83 pp), but no significant increase in the other 3 models, with estimates ranging from 0.33 pp (95% CI, -0.04 to 0.71 pp) to 0.69 pp (95% CI, -0.02 to 1.40 pp). An unexpected newborn death was not associated with a significant increase in antibiotic use in the full sample models (without matching: 0.19 pp; 95% CI, -0.00 to 0.39 pp; with matching: 0.22 pp; 95% CI: -0.02 to 0.46 pp), but was associated with a significant increase in both of the 1-hospital county subsample models (without matching: 0.38 pp; 95% CI, 0.02 to 0.73 pp; with matching: 0.39 pp; 95% CI, 0.01 to 0.77 pp).
Conclusions and relevance: In some study models, an unexpected newborn death was associated with statistically significant increases in subsequent use of procedures to avert and mitigate fetal distress and newborn complications, which could reflect increases in identifying and proactively addressing serious potential complications or increased clinician caution applied across all cases. Future research should address whether these changes affect patient outcomes.