Although a number of antenatal and intrapartum interventions have shown some evidence of impact on stillbirth incidence, much confusion surrounds ideal strategies for delivering these interventions within health systems, particularly in low-/middle-income countries where 98% of the world’s stillbirths occur. Improving the uptake of quality antenatal and intrapartum care is critical for evidence-based interventions to generate an impact at the population level. This concluding paper of a series of papers reviewing the evidence for stillbirth interventions examines the evidence for community and health systems approaches to improve uptake and quality of antenatal and intrapartum care, and synthesises programme and policy recommendations for how best to deliver evidence-based interventions at community and facility levels, across the continuum of care, to reduce stillbirths.
We systematically searched PubMed and the Cochrane Library for abstracts pertaining to community-based and health-systems strategies to increase uptake and quality of antenatal and intrapartum care services. We also sought abstracts which reported impact on stillbirths or perinatal mortality. Searches used multiple combinations of broad and specific search terms and prioritised rigorous randomised controlled trials and meta-analyses where available. Wherever eligible randomised controlled trials were identified after a Cochrane review had been published, we conducted new meta-analyses based on the original Cochrane criteria.
In low-resource settings, cost, distance and the time needed to access care are major barriers for effective uptake of antenatal and particularly intrapartum services. A number of innovative strategies to surmount cost, distance, and time barriers to accessing care were identified and evaluated; of these, community financial incentives, loan/insurance schemes, and maternity waiting homes seem promising, but few studies have reported or evaluated the impact of the wide-scale implementation of these strategies on stillbirth rates. Strategies to improve quality of care by upgrading the skills of community cadres have shown demonstrable impact on perinatal mortality, particularly in conjunction with health systems strengthening and facilitation of referrals. Neonatal resuscitation training for physicians and other health workers shows potential to prevent many neonatal deaths currently misclassified as stillbirths. Perinatal audit systems, which aim to improve quality of care by identifying deficiencies in care, are a quality improvement measure that shows some evidence of benefit for changes in clinical practice that prevent stillbirths, and are strongly recommended wherever practical, whether as hospital case review or as confidential enquiry at district or national level.
Delivering interventions to reduce the global burden of stillbirths requires action at all levels of the health system. Packages of interventions should be tailored to local conditions, including local levels and causes of stillbirth, accessibility of care and health system resources and provider skill. Antenatal care can potentially serve as a platform to deliver interventions to improve maternal nutrition, promote behaviour change to reduce harmful exposures and risk of infections, screen for and treat risk factors, and encourage skilled attendance at birth. Following the example of high-income countries, improving intrapartum monitoring for fetal distress and access to Caesarean section in low-/middle-income countries appears to be key to reducing intrapartum stillbirth. In remote or low-resource settings, families and communities can be galvanised to demand and seek quality care through financial incentives and health promotion efforts of local cadres of health workers, though these interventions often require simultaneous health systems strengthening. Perinatal audit can aid in the development of better standards of care, improving quality in health systems. Effective strategies to prevent stillbirth are known; gaps remain in the data, the evidence and perhaps most significantly, the political will to implement these strategies at scale.