Exploration of the Effects of Rural Obstetric Unit Closures on Birth Outcomes in North Carolina


North Carolina


Mission Hospital

Document Type


Publication Date



rural health services


Health and Medical Administration | Obstetrics and Gynecology | Public Health | Women's Health



Closures of rural labor and delivery (L/D) units have prompted national and state‐based efforts to assess the impact on birth outcomes. This study explores local effects of L/D closures in rural areas of North Carolina (NC).


This is a retrospective cohort study of birth outcomes of 4,065 women in 5 rural areas of NC with L/D unit closures between 2013 and 2017. Outcomes were abstracted from birth certificate data from the NC Vital Statistics Reporting System. Localized outcomes 1 year prior to L/D unit closure were compared with outcomes 1 and 2 years post closure, including: (1) birth location and demographics, (2) change in travel patterns for birth, and (3) birth outcomes, including rates of labor induction, cesarean deliveries, maternal morbidity, and neonatal outcomes.


Before closures, 25%‐56% of deliveries occurred outside county of residence. Commercially insured and college‐educated women were more likely to deliver out‐of‐area. Closures increased travel distance to delivery hospital an average of 7‐27 miles. In 2 areas, cesarean delivery rates decreased despite an increase in labor inductions. There was also variability between areas in prenatal care adequacy and breastfeeding.


We found that L/D unit closures in rural NC disproportionately affected women on Medicaid. The impact showed area‐specific variability, highlighting effects potentially masked by statewide or national analyses. Implications for future L/D closures would be eased by regional coordination and planning to mitigate negative effects, and state and national policies should address the excess burden placed on vulnerable populations.

Publisher or Conference

The Journal of Rural Health