WASHINGTON - Doctors have been warned for decades about the dangers of delivering babies early without medical reasons, but the practice remained stubbornly persistent.
Now, with pressure on doctors and hospitals from the federal government, private and public insurers and patient advocacy groups, the rate of elective deliveries before 39 weeks is dropping significantly, according to the latest hospital survey from The Leapfrog Group, a coalition of some of the nation's largest corporations that buy health benefits for their employees.
The national average of elective early deliveries fell to 11.2 percent last year from 14 percent in 2011 and 17 percent in 2010. Nearly 800 U.S. hospitals report their data to Leapfrog, about a third of the American facilities that offer maternity services.
"This data shows more hospitals are responding to the evidence," said Cindy Pellegrini, a senior vice president at the March of Dimes, which has been educating women and working with hospitals and doctors to lower early delivery rates. "This means babies are being born healthier and having a better start in life, and have a much greater likelihood of avoiding health consequences later on in life."
Babies born before 39 weeks are more likely to have feeding and breathing problems and infections that may result in admissions to neonatal intensive-care units, studies show. The elective deliveries may also cause developmental problems years later.
Inducing labor early also increases the chances that mothers will need cesarean sections.
Since 1979, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists has recommended against deliveries or induced labor before 39 weeks unless there's a medical indication, such as the mother's high blood pressure or diabetes or signs that the fetus may be in distress.
Still, an estimated 10 to 15 percent of U.S. babies continued to be delivered early without medical cause, according to a federal report last year.
Leapfrog Chief Executive Officer Leah Binder said she was encouraged by the latest figures but that the rates were still too high at many hospitals, as high as 40 percent in some.