The March of Dimes issued Louisiana an “F” Wednesday for having too many premature births.

The report card defined a premature birth (also called preterm birth) as one occurring before 37 weeks of pregnancy.  Full-term birth is defined as a pregnancy lasting 39 to 41 weeks
However, the March of Dimes spotlighted Rapides Regional Medical Center for reducing one of the highest percentages of early elective deliveries in the state to none.

“Partnerships with our state health officials and local hospitals have helped us make newborn health a priority, making a difference in babies’ lives,” said Tarnisha Brady, of the Cenla Division of the March of Dimes. “Our local hospital partner, Rapides Regional Medical Center, has been very successful in our 39-weeks initiative, and we’re proud of that.”

“Rapides Regional Medical Center is proud to help reduce the number of Louisiana’s premature births,” said Charla Ducote, Rapides Regional Medical Center’s Vice President of Marketing and Business Development. “By educating our doctors, our patients and the community, we’ve seen a drastic reduction in the overall number of elective premature births.

“It’s a number we’re affecting one patient – and one baby – at a time.”

It’s also a success Louisiana officials are hoping will spread.

According to Wednesday’s report, the three factors measured on the March of Dimes Premature Birth Report Card are: smoking among women of child-bearing age, uninsured women and late premature births, meaning births between 34 and 36 weeks.

Women can reduce the risk of premature birth if they quit smoking and get early and regular prenatal care throughout their pregnancies. 

The significance of late, preterm births, according to the March of Dimes, is that these births may have been delivered early by choice. The mother may have chosen to be induced or to give birth by C-section, because the last weeks of pregnancy are uncomfortable. She might not know that at least 39 weeks of pregnancy are important to her baby’s health because many important organs, including the brain and lungs, are not completely developed until then.

The “F” grade is based on how close Louisiana is to a goal set by the March of Dimes of less than 10 premature births in a hundred deliveries, or about 10 percent, a rate it hopes to achieve by the year 2020. The Report Card includes data from the National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS) showing Louisiana’s premature birth rate is 15.6 percent.

According to Louisiana Chapter State Director Frankie Robertson, the March of Dimes is leading efforts to improve the grade by advocating for increased access to prenatal healthcare, by increasing education about why the last weeks of pregnancy are so important to a baby’s health, and by forming partnerships with Louisiana healthcare leaders, including the Department of Health and Hospitals (DHH). The goal is to ensure more babies are born healthy by helping all expectant women have a full-term pregnancy if medically possible. 

“We are thrilled to be working in partnership with DHH Secretary Bruce Greenstein, his team, and the Louisiana Hospital Association,” said Robertson.  “The work we have already started will, in the long run, improve the health of Louisiana’s newborns. 

“Our state statistics show a downward trend in elective premature births during the last several years. We just need to accelerate the improvement.”

Premature birth is a serious health problem that costs the United States more than $26 billion annually, according to the Institute of Medicine. It is the leading cause of newborn death, and babies who survive an early birth often face the risk of lifetime health challenges, such as breathing problems, cerebral palsy, intellectual disabilities and others. Even babies born just a few weeks early have higher rates of hospitalization and illness than full-term infants.

March of Dimes and its partners are addressing the Report Card recommendations. Birthing hospitals in the Louisiana Health Association say they will continue to avoid elective deliveries before 39 weeks of pregnancy unless medically necessary; DHH has renewed its commitment to its LA-Moms program to help more pregnant women qualify for Medicaid coverage; and March of Dimes will continue to advocate for coverage of smoking cessation programs for pregnant women.

“We were the first state to accept the March of Dimes challenge to reduce premature births 8 percent by 2014, and we continue our aggressive work through programs like our Louisiana Birth Outcomes Initiative to give babies a better chance at living a longer, healthier life from the start," said Greenstein, Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals Secretary. “While it takes time for these efforts to be reflected in the data, the recognition by the March of Dimes, noting that we are moving in the right direction and presenting Louisiana with the Prematurity Leadership Award earlier this year, is encouraging. Now it’s time to double down on our commitment to delivering a healthier generation of Louisianians.”

The March of Dimes education program is called “Healthy Babies are Worth the Wait,” and uses television, radio and printed public service announcements to urge expectant mothers with healthy pregnancies, who may elect early delivery to choose full-term pregnancy instead.

Because premature babies are more likely to need early intensive care for health problems, one measure of success is how many newborns are admitted to hospital intensive care units.

According to DHH statistics some participating hospitals have reported decreases of nearly 30% in admissions to these units.