Early baby deliveries plummet in US, California

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A campaign to lower the rate of early delivery of babies has had remarkable success in recent years, according to data released Monday by a private group that works to improve the quality of health care. Among the hospitals that reported data, the national average dropped from 17 percent in 2010 to 4.6 percent in 2013, according to The Leapfrog Group, the private industry-backed group that published the results of its survey.

In California, 134 hospitals responded to Leapfrog's survey, roughly one third of the state's acute care hospitals. Among those facilities, the rate of early deliveries dropped below that of the level achieved nationally, going from 14.7 percent in 2010 to 3 percent last year.

Nearly 1,000 hospitals responded to The Leapfrog Group's survey nationally.

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Business, patient advocacy groups and the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services had been working to lower the early delivery rate for some time. Those efforts starting bearing more fruit after Leapfrog published its first data on early deliveries in 2010.

A number of early deliveries - defined as occurring before 39 weeks - have happened because the mothers got tired of pregnancy. Sometimes a doctor's imminent vacation or out-of-town conference has been a factor.

Many hospitals have adopted "hard-stop" policies, which forbid doctors from delivering babies before 39 weeks unless there is a medical reason. 

The movement got another boost last October, when the American College of Obstetricians & Gynecologists revised its definition of "term pregnancy." Previously the ACOG defined birth anytime between 37 and 42 weeks as "term." It has now expanded its definitions to say that anything before 39 weeks is "early term," and births between 39 and 41 weeks are "full term." 

Some California hospitals that reported dramatic drops in early deliveries:

Data: The Leapfrog Group's full table of hospitals reporting early delivery rates for 2010 & 2013