Informed consent during the intrapartum period : an observational study of the interactions between health professionals and women in labour involving consent to procedures
This ethnographic study using participant observation, aimed to explore the issue of informed consent to procedures undertaken during the intrapartum period. It involved recruiting 100 healthy women, who went into labour spontaneously at term, at the point they were admitted to the labour ward. The data collection took place in a large teaching hospital in an East Midlands city from April 1997 until December 1999. The subjects (health professionals and women) were observed throughout the labour until the woman and baby were transferred to the postnatal area. Follow-up interviews were conducted with the woman and midwives, within 24 hours, using a semi-structured format based on the observations. The study revealed that it was difficult to obtain informed consent during labour. Contrary to professional belief, not all women wanted to be fully informed about intrapartum care and procedures, or wanted anything other than a pain free and easy labour that they perceived the western medical-technocratic model of care would offer them. Although the midwives' knowledge of legal and ethical issues concerning consent was variable and limited in the majority of cases, they attempted to empower women to make intrapartum choices. However, this was often constrained by the culture of the labour ward environment and the extent to which they adhered to policies and procedures. In cases where medical intervention became necessary, a minority of midwives felt personally disempowered. The obstetricians and paediatricians observed, appeared to be less effective communicators than anaesthetists, often leaving it to the midwife to explain issues to the woman. It is envisaged that these findings, as well as the stereotypical models of the labouring woman and the attending midwife that developed, and the resulting recommendations, be used in partnership between maternity service and education providers to ensure that health professionals not only have effective communication and interpersonal skills, but also are more conversant with the legal and ethical implications of consent.