VA Maternity Care Coordinator (MCC) program facilitates specialized care for military Veteran parents

For new families, healthy, evidence-based infant feeding education and support can be hard to come by, but among this often barren landscape of support, the VA Maternity Care Coordinator (MCC) program provides an oasis for military Veteran mothers.  

Retired USAF Lt Col Tammy Tenace BSN, MS, APRN-BC, now Women Veteran Education, Outreach and Research Coordinator  for James A. Haley Veterans Hospital in Tampa, Fla. says that the VA understands that pregnancy and parenthood often requires specialized care.

About a decade ago, as care providers started to notice that lactation and breastfeeding support was severely limited in civilian communities, they established the MCC role. MCCs maintain contact with Veteran families throughout the perinatal period, facilitating care that meets their specific needs. 

Because the VA does not provide obstetric care, the MCC acts as a liaison between the VA and the community obstetrical provider. MCCs follow Veterans through pregnancy and postpartum at one and six weeks postpartum. [https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s11606-019-04974-z]  The VA supplies Veterans with lactation supplies like breast pumps, nursing bras, nursing pads, storage bags, etc.

The MCC role has been established at every VA medical center, and Tenace has served as MCC at her hospital since 2016.  

Photo by George Pak : https://www.pexels.com/photo/family-sitting-on-sofa-beside-house-plant-near-the-windows-7983863/

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, what little perinatal support existed in civilian spaces, dwindled to almost nothing, Tenace points out. 

Hospital breastfeeding support groups, while only meeting a couple of times a week, stopped meeting altogether. Women weren’t allowed support people or their partners at appointments, and they began to feel isolated. 

“I realized I needed to do something; I couldn’t depend on the community,” Tenace says.  

Working through the Office on Women’s Health as a subject matter expert, VA National Consultant for Lactation Ashley M. Lauria, MA, RD, LDN, IBCLC helps establish standards of care in lactation programs at VA facilities nationwide. 

Tenace and Lauria both comment that among the hundreds of parents they have cared for, it is truly a rarity for an individual to express disinterest in lactation. Their experience reflects national numbers, where most dyads start out breastfeeding. 

Women Veterans are the fastest growing group among the Veteran population. In fact,  “by 2040, VA estimates they will comprise 18% of the Veteran population, versus just 4% in 2000,” according to a VA Pittsburgh press release.

In order to keep up with this demand, Tenace and her colleagues are in the process of curating a Certified Lactation Counselor (CLC) program. Made possible through funding from the Women’s Health Innovations and Staffing Enhancements (WHISE), ten of their staff members are completing the Lactation Counselor Training Course (LCTC), including Tenace, physicians, a health coach, advanced practice nurses, among others. 

“The most up-to-date information is really important,” Tenace begins. “[We are all] unlearning the things we thought we knew. The course has been instrumental to helping us feel like we are actually helping women, instead of relying on the knowledge that we thought we had. The course is detailed and professional, yet practical. The practicalness is what’s to our advantage. It’s how we actually help women breastfeed.”

Photo by Timothy Meinberg on Unsplash

Tenace and Lauria go on to explain that their efforts are Veteran-led. That is, their facilities host quarterly focus groups where they can learn about Veterans’ requests. 

“We want to know from women: what do they want?” Tenace comments. 

Because Veteran women often prefer support groups comprised of other Veterans, Lauria offers virtual lactation support groups that also act as social circles and a place for comradery. 

As James A. Haley Veterans’ Hospital designs new facilities, Tenace has been invited to offer input on the creation of lactation space for both employees and patients. Tenace applauds their leadership for focusing on improvement for the patient and employee experience. She also highlights that the newly designed main entrance will host a lactation pod. 

“I can’t think of a better way to show commitment,” she adds.  

Tenace and Lauria have embodied a passion for birth and lactation since their youth. Their work with the VA allows them to continue their mission to celebrate parents and their families and position themselves as life-long learners, evolving with the needs of Veteran mothers. 

 

Photo by Brianna Lisa Photography: https://www.pexels.com/photo/mother-breastfeeding-her-child-in-park-11620457/

For more on VA maternity care services visit https://www.womenshealth.va.gov/docs/WomensHealthReproductiveHealthBrochure508.pdf

More on Veteran Health https://www.commonwealthfund.org/blog/2021/birth-equity-Veterans-and-servicemembers  

Regulations and resources for all military branches https://www.mom2momglobal.org/bficb 

Coverage for pregnancy and lactation care in the military health system https://www.military.com/daily-news/2021/11/01/tricare-cover-doulas-lactation-consultants-some-starting-jan-1.html 

Physicians as breastfeeding supporters

Photo retrieved from: https://tobacco.stanford.edu/cigarette/img0079/

“More doctors smoke camels than any other cigarette,” claims the ad from 1950. Today, it’s preposterous to imagine that any physician would align themselves with the tobacco industry. Starting  in the 1920s and continuing well into the 1950s though, tobacco companies used doctors to help them sell their products. Stanford’s Research into the Impact of Tobacco Advertising has a collection of over 1,000 advertisements that feature doctors endorsing tobacco products. 

In an eerie parallel, WHO’s February 2022 report, How the marketing of formula milk influences our decisions on infant feeding, states that “Recommendations from health professionals are a key channel of formula milk marketing. Health professionals spoke of receiving commissions from sales, funding for research, promotional gifts, samples of infant and specialized formula milk products, or invitations to seminars, conferences and events.” (p. 7) 

Last week, Nikki Lee, RN, BSN, MS, Mother of 2, IBCLC,RLC, CCE, CIMI, CST (cert.appl.), ANLC, RYT500 and I shared our reflection on the forces that shape physicians’ personal infant feeding experiences. In this second installment, we explore how physicians as professionals can support breastfeeding despite being targeted by the breastmilk substitute (BMS) industry and despite generally being woefully equipped with proper lactation education, training and counseling skills. These predicaments can lead physicians to “explicitly or inadvertently, introduce doubts around the ability of women to breastfeed and the value and quality of their breast milk.” (WHO, p. 12) 

 

Pervasive industry influence for generations

Because “health professionals are among the most respected and trusted members of society…[their] advice…is highly influential for pregnant women and parents of infants and young children, including around infant feeding decisions.”  Formula milk companies exploit this relationship of trust. (WHO, p. 12)

Source: United States Breastfeeding Committee

BMS representatives target physicians “with a range of incentives, including funding for research, commissions from sales, ambassadorial roles, merchandise, gifts and all expenses paid promotional trips.” (WHO, p.13) 

The psychology behind gift-giving, both big and small is that “ it imposes…a sense of indebtedness…. The…rule of reciprocity imposes…an obligation to repay for favors, gifts and invitations…” (Katz 2003) Instead of supporting infant feeding purely through a health and wellness lens, physicians feel obliged to a company muddying their relationships with their patients. 

Interestingly, most physicians feel immune to marketing’s influence, despite clear evidence to the contrary, Frederick S. Sierles, MD lays out in The Gift-Giving Influence

Curious consumers can search their doctors’ names through ProPublica’s Dollars for Docs project to learn about gifts they have accepted. 

 

Mechanical culture 

Our culture fails to acknowledge the mother baby unit as a dyad, and this influences the way physicians can support breastfeeding too.

Source: United States Breastfeeding Committee (USBC)

“We are never taught, in our fragmented system, that the mother and baby are a unit,” Lee reiterates. “OB/GYN/midwife sees mama; peds sees babies. There are even different places for them in the hospital: nursery, postpartum unit. What a struggle we had with the BFHI to keep mother and baby together.” 

[As a side, Attorney Leah Margulies recently shared in Protecting Breastfeeding in the United States: Time for Action on The Code that formula companies provide architectural designs to maternity care facilities in a deliberate attempt to separate dyads.] 

The Alliance for Innovation on Maternal Health’s (AIM) Patient Safety Bundles offer models for how health professionals can use task force approaches that break down silos of care and open channels of communication. The strategies used in these bundles aim to ultimately shift from fractured care to continuity of care where the dyad is protected.  

We must also consider how physicians are compensated for their work. In the current U.S. healthcare system, physicians find themselves paid in Relative Value Units (RVUs), which bluntly put, is a pretty mechanical way to value providing care to other humans, as we mentioned in our first installment. In short, the more RVUs a physician racks up, the more they’re paid. Breastfeeding counseling takes time.

 

Inadequate education 

How are physicians to spend time with their patients, educating and supporting breastfeeding when they’ve had little to no breastfeeding education invested in them? Dr. Nigel Campbell Rollins pointed out in WHO’s How the marketing of formula milk influences our decisions on infant feeding webinar that faculty in medical schools themselves sometimes believe that formula products are inevitable or necessary. 

A cross-sectional study in the UK suggests that UK medical schools are not adequately preparing students to support breastfeeding patients.  

Source: United States Breastfeeding Committee

Samantha A Chuisano and  Olivia S Anderson’s findings in Assessing Application-Based Breastfeeding Education for Physicians and Nurses: A Scoping Review “… align with existing literature in finding a dearth of high-quality studies assessing breastfeeding education among physicians and nurses. The variability in teaching and evaluation methods indicates a lack of standardization in breastfeeding education between institutions.”

Elizabeth Esselmont and colleagues’ piece Residents’ breastfeeding knowledge, comfort, practices, and perceptions: results of the Breastfeeding Resident Education Study (BRESt) concludes: “Pediatric residents in Canada recognize that they play an important role in supporting breastfeeding. Most residents lack the knowledge and training to manage breastfeeding difficulties but are motivated to learn more about breastfeeding. Pediatric program directors recognize the lack of breastfeeding education.” 

 

A collection of physicians’ stories 

Often, it is a physician’s own struggle to breastfeed that seems to spur advocacy and change. Our Milky Way’s repository includes a breadth of physicians’ stories of personal struggles that have inspired them to become breastfeeding champions for their patients and communities. 

Source: United States Breastfeeding Committee (Photo by Sara D. Davis)

Some of those stories are linked below: 

Sarah Jacobitz-Kizzier, MD, MS, in Resident physician advances breastfeeding support,  shares that her lactation education in medical school included a one hour lecture about the anatomy of the breast and a brief discussion in physiology about lactogenesis.

“There was no training about [breastfeeding] technique, no discussion about common problems before discharge, no training about clinical problems as far as in the first few months postpartum…when to introduce complementary food,” she continues.

Physician calls for peer breastfeeding support features the work of Colette Wiseman, MD, CLC. 

In Breastfeeding in the healthiest county in Virginia, Janine A. Rethy, MD, MPH, FAAP, FABM, IBCLC, a general pediatrician in Loudoun County, Va. describes her dedication to improving breastfeeding outcomes. In it, she shares a resource she and her colleagues created –the Breastfeeding Support Implementation Guide for the Outpatient Setting which includes information on how to bill insurance for lactation services.

Skin to skin in the OR showcases Rebecca Rudesill’s, MD, CLC quest for more breastfeeding education. 

Kristina Lehman’s, MD, CLC work is featured in Internist looks to augment breastfeeding education

James Thomas Dean III, DO and Assistant Professor of Pediatrics at the University of Texas San Antonio Dr. Perla N. Soni, MD share their perspectives in Lack of breastfeeding education in med school harms families

Alison Stuebe, MD, MSc tackles big topics in OB/GYN sheds light on breastfeeding culture.

We are honored to have been able to feature the work of the late Audrey Naylor in Commendable contributions to the field of lactation. ​​With a lifetime interest in illness prevention, Naylor said she was quickly convinced of the power of breastfeeding after only attending a few hours of a breastfeeding seminar in 1976.

“Neither medical school nor pediatric residency taught me anything about breastfeeding,” Naylor said.  

Elizabeth Sahlie’s, MD, FAAP and Jesanna Cooper’s, MD work is featured in Birmingham Mother-to-mother support helps moms reach feeding goals. Cooper says that before she became a mother, she had no idea that her medical training and education had been so lacking.

“It is easy to become frustrated with nurses and physicians who – often inadvertently sabotage breastfeeding mothers and babies, but I also sympathize,” she explains. “We are in a position where we are supposed to have answers, but no one has taught us the skills necessary to provide those answers.”

Other stories and models for care 

Lori Feldman-Winter’s, et al  Residency curriculum improves breastfeeding care showed that “a targeted breastfeeding curriculum for residents in pediatrics, family medicine, and obstetrics and gynecology improves knowledge, practice patterns, and confidence in breastfeeding management in residents and increases exclusive breastfeeding in their patients. Implementation of this curriculum may similarly benefit other institutions.

 As part of their work to build a cohort of breastfeeding-friendly pediatricians, the Georgia Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Georgia Breastfeeding Coalition launched a “Breastfeeding-Friendly Pediatrician Interest Form.” Georgia pediatricians who are interested in becoming certified as a “Breastfeeding-Friendly Pediatrician” are invited to fill out the form.

 

Further reading and resources

Physicians, Formula Companies, and Advertising: A Historical Perspective

Inspire Health, CHAMPS,  and the University of Mississippi Medical Center’s Breastfeeding, Human Medicine,  Interprofessional Education training   

CDC Physician Breastfeeding Education  

What Every Physician Needs to Know About Breastfeeding from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation

The Institute for the Advancement of Breastfeeding & Lactation Education (IABLE) is a nonprofit membership organization whose mission is to optimize the promotion and support of breastfeeding for families in the outpatient sector. IABLE is dedicated to building Breastfeeding Knowledgeable Medical Systems and Communities. 

Academy of Breastfeeding Medicine (ABM) Breastfeeding-friendly Physicians protocol 

 

Physician group position papers and recommendations on breastfeeding 

American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP)

American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP)

The American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology (ACOG)