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Annah Burgess and her baby Rhys. Photo by Sara Lerner.

Annah Burgess and her baby Rhys. Photo by Sara Lerner.


UW Nurse Midwifery Program Faces Uncertain Future

Sara Lerner

A committee of nursing faculty at the University of Washington is scheduled to meet with students today. The nurse midwifery program is in limbo after faculty voted to eliminate it last winter. Now, students are waiting to see what this new committee decides about the program's fate. KUOW's Sara Lerner reports.


Nurse midwives deliver babies when the birth is designated as low–risk. They work in hospitals and out. Associate Dean Maggie Baker is involved in the nursing school restructuring. It's a long path.

Baker: "The purpose of the master process is so that we can get to our desired outcomes which relate to our strategic initiatives and find out how we can measure and then meet our strategies."

Baker says last December, as part of this process, faculty had to choose programs that were more vulnerable. That led to the vote to get rid of midwifery, along with two smaller programs, perinatal and neonatal. A petition immediately popped up online supporting the midwifery program. Letters poured in.

Many students say they're confused because the midwifery program itself is not bleeding cash. To save money, the school changed the program's economic structure. Now, nurse midwife students pay a higher tuition and they completely fund it. But Baker says that could change. Plus, she says the program has "low faculty capacity" — that is, not enough big–name researchers.

Baker: "We're a research–intensive university and our mission of school and the university is to look at the world's most pressing problems, and to, to work on the science to develop the solutions to problems that will promote health."

The nurse midwifery program formed 19 years ago and it's one of only six on the West Coast.

Jeffery Thompson is the Chief Medical Officer for Medicaid in Washington state. I talked to him on a Tuesday.

Thompson: "I was at hospital all weekend watching, you know, our first granddaughter being born. It was a wonderful experience. She had a nurse midwife and I think they did a great job."

Thompson is a loud proponent of midwifery care.

Thompson: "According to our studies and this long history in this state, if more women chose a birthing center or home birth with licensed midwives or nurse midwives, we would have lower C–section rates in this state."

But out–of–hospital births are highly controversial. Many obstetricians say they are too risky.

Still, Thompson encourages women to learn more about their options and he hopes more will choose nurse midwives, either in a hospital or out. He says the C–section rate is important because it's a surgery that can bring risks for the moms, and because C–sections are more expensive. And Medicaid pays for half of all births in Washington state.

Sound: Baby and mom laughing.

Like for this baby, Rhyse, delivered into the world by a midwife. He's at his home in Bellingham with his mom, Annah Burgess. She's a registered nurse with a specialty in reproductive health care. And now, she wants to go farther and become a nurse midwife.

She planned to apply to the UW program, but there might not be one. She's disappointed about that for herself, but she says, for her, she's sad for bigger reasons.

Burgess: "I think that because birth is such a powerful event in a lot of women's lives that women just need to have options and choices and feel empowered to make decision best for them. And if we aren't educating midwives, you know, for women to have the option of midwifery care, then we are really doing ourselves and society a disservice."

Maggie Baker, back at the UW, says no one person made the decision to eliminate the program. It was just part of the process. She says it's not easy.

Baker: "Mothers and babies are important. I mean to us, we're nurses, everybody's important to us. But when you have a 50 percent cut in state funding, when you are trying to figure out what you can do best to meet your mission, it's a very difficult situation."

The new faculty committee is now reassessing that December vote and will make a recommendation to the dean. Their deadline is the end of the month. The nursing faculty committee meets with nurse midwifery students today.

I'm Sara Lerner, KUOW News.

© Copyright 2012, KUOW