Background: Maternal morbidity is more common than maternal death, and population-based estimates of the burden of maternal morbidity could provide important indicators for monitoring trends, priority setting and evaluating the health impact of interventions. Methods based on lay reporting of obstetric events have been shown to lack specificity and there is a need for new approaches to measure the population burden of maternal morbidity. A computer-based probabilistic tool was developed to estimate the likelihood of maternal morbidity and its causes based on self-reported symptoms and pregnancy/delivery experiences. Development involved the use of training datasets of signs, symptoms and causes of morbidity from 1734 facility-based deliveries in Benin and Burkina Faso, as well as expert review. Preliminary evaluation of the method compared the burden of maternal morbidity and specific causes from the probabilistic tool with clinical classifications of 489 recently-delivered women from Benin, Bangladesh and India.
Results: Using training datasets, it was possible to create a probabilistic tool that handled uncertainty of women's self reports of pregnancy and delivery experiences in a unique way to estimate population-level burdens of maternal morbidity and specific causes that compared well with clinical classifications of the same data. When applied to test datasets, the method overestimated the burden of morbidity compared with clinical review, although possible conceptual and methodological reasons for this were identified.
Conclusion: The probabilistic method shows promise and may offer opportunities for standardised measurement of maternal morbidity that allows for the uncertainty of women's self-reported symptoms in retrospective interviews. However, important discrepancies with clinical classifications were observed and the method requires further development, refinement and evaluation in a range of settings.