To our knowledge, this is the first report of a multidisciplinary audit of stillbirths in Sweden with a focus on possibly preventable stillbirths, delays and substandard care. The audit was carried out on behalf of the Swedish National Board of Health and Welfare and was performed by a multidisciplinary team consisting of three obstetricians, one midwife and one neonatologist. A combination of different protocols used internationally in similar projects was used [17, 18, 26, 28]. The WHO’s “Making every baby count: audit and review of stillbirths and neonatal deaths” suggests that the audit of medical records may be a tool when trying to identify modifiable factors or avoidable patterns . This was one reason why this audit of all stillbirths in Stockholm was performed.
Comparing stillbirths in Stockholm with stillbirths in Sweden
The study population in this audit was overall representative of all the stillbirths in Sweden occurring in the same year, except that there were fewer nulliparous women, more complications of pregnancy, more women born in Africa and more infants with SGA in the Stockholm group. The difference was statistically significant and might describe a true difference between the stillborn group in Stockholm and the rest of the country. However, as the study population in Stockholm was small it cannot be ruled out that there is some bias in medical care or that socioeconomic circumstances or simply chance can explain this. The information was also collected in different ways since the Stockholm data came directly from studying the individual medical charts, whereas the data from the whole of Sweden came from national registers.
Comparing stillbirths with live births in Stockholm
The stillbirths in our population were more often SGA compared to liveborn infants. This is in line with previous reports  and is a well-established association in the clinical setting. There was an overrepresentation of women born in Africa in the stillbirth group. This is also in line with previous reports, both in a Swedish register-based study on stillbirths and in an Italian audit on stillbirths [17, 31]. It is also possible, even if we could not control for it in this study, that women from Africa are in a more socioeconomic vulnerable situation. However, adjusting for socioeconomic status did not decrease the overrepresentation of mothers born in Africa in a large register-based study of stillbirths in Sweden,  therefore increasing the risk of delay. Our study also indicates that socioeconomic vulnerabilities, such as fewer women working fulltime, could be more common in the stillbirth group.
In our cohort, more than two thirds of the stillbirths were assessed as not preventable, and it was more common among stillbirths in early pregnancy. Even though the birth country of the mother did not differ between mothers with preventable and non-preventable stillbirths, it was more common for mothers to be non-Swedish-speaking in the stillbirths that were categorized as probably/possibly preventable. In the Swedish register-based study mentioned above, the authors found that mothers who had been in Sweden less than 5 years had the most increased risk of stillbirth . This is in line with our finding that women with possibly/probably preventable stillbirths were more often non-Swedish-speaking.
In almost one third of the cases of stillbirth in this audit, there was an observed delay of care. When investigating patient-related delay, we found there was a higher rate of patient-related delay in women who were non-Swedish-speaking. Ethnicity and lack of language skills have previously been reported to contribute significantly to stillbirth [32,33,34]. What seems relevant in our study is whether the woman speaks Swedish or not. Communication problems due to language barriers could be a limiting factor in the situation of threatening stillbirth, partly due to the difficulty of seeking contact with healthcare (as almost all contact in Swedish maternal care and healthcare in general is preceded by telephone contact) and partly due to difficulties in understanding the healthcare system. It is possible that it is more difficult for non-Swedish-speaking women to find information, to describe problems over the telephone when needing healthcare and to understand the information given by healthcare workers over the phone. As midwives pointed out in a survey by the National Board of Health and Welfare, this is often a limiting factor in their work as midwives.
Using interpreters might reduce misunderstandings in the healthcare of non-Swedish-speaking pregnant women, and allowing a non-relative, Swedish-speaking woman from the same cultural background to support and help the pregnant woman can be essential. Previous studies have shown that the assistance of a doula during pregnancy results in better obstetrical and neonatal outcomes [35,36,37]. The contact between the pregnant woman and the healthcare system might be facilitated by allowing a non-relative, Swedish-speaking woman from the same cultural background, a ‘culture doula’, to support and help the pregnant woman. We therefore suggest that the usefulness of ‘culture doulas’ be further investigated.
Causes of death
Most of the stillbirths in this audit occurred antepartum (94%). In other similar projects, such as ‘Each baby counts’ in the United Kingdom , more cases of intrapartum deaths were sometimes included in the reports. This means that different numbers are presented and that the results could be hard to compare. Furthermore, the mechanisms for the antepartum and intrapartum stillbirths are different and while the former are more likely to depend on the antenatal care organization, the latter are more likely to depend on the quality of labour ward.
When examining if an explanation for the stillbirth could be found in the medical charts, a definite/probable or possible cause of death was found in all but six cases (7.6%). This is low compared to some other reports on stillbirth; however, there are around 35 classification systems for stillbirths, and some of the more complex ones classify approximately 20–30% of cases as unexplained [38, 39]. Despite extensive investigations, no real cause of death could be identified in these cases. The cases where no explanation for the stillbirth can be found are perhaps the most difficult cases for the affected families. A sensible explanation of what has happened can be a consolation in the grief process . According to our clinical experience, not getting an explanation can often be both frustrating and frightening.
Apart from intrauterine growth restriction/placental insufficiency, infection, malformations and other medical conditions, there were indications that if the clinical routines were better/followed there might have been a chance to prevent the stillbirth in some of the women who were classified as having a possibly or probably preventable stillbirth. According to our assessment, in some of the cases more frequent ultrasound/clinical check-ups, earlier induction of labour and earlier interventions in line with current guidelines were suggested. This is in line with earlier published data that underlined that the quality of care is of great importance before the stillbirth has occurred and that substandard care contributes to 20–30% of stillbirths .
According to an analysis of the ANC patient charts, thorough information on the importance of feeling foetal movements and how to act in case of reduced movements was usually given by the responsible midwife. In most cases, this was well documented in the woman’s medical files. A survey conducted by the Swedish National Board of Health and Welfare was sent to the midwives in primary care, and it showed good adherence to the guidelines regarding reduced foetal movements, for example. However, the respondents reported there were factors affecting the implementation of guidelines, such as language barriers . In a previous study of women seeking medical care for reduced foetal movements published by our research group in 2020,  it was found that in a very large percentage of stillbirths reduced foetal movement was the symptom of intrauterine death.
Recently, all major obstetrics and gynaecology associations, such as the Royal College of Obstetrics and Gynaecology (RCOG) and the American College of Obstetrics and Gynaecology (ACOG), have highlighted the importance of quality care for patients with stillbirths [43, 44]. In this audit, we could identify elements of substandard care after the stillbirth occurred, such as incomplete diagnostic protocols in 17.7% of the cases. In 20.3% of the cases, an assessment of the cause of stillbirth and planning for the next pregnancy was missing from the patients’ medical files. Being able to plan future pregnancies is one way to provide reassurance to parents .
The most common diagnosis associated with stillbirth in this audit was a growth restriction/placenta insufficiency. Following foetal growth during pregnancy is important, and symphysis-fundal height (SFH) is the main metric used in every Swedish ANC unit for identifying SGA foetuses. However, a Cochrane review from 2015 showed there is insufficient evidence that SFH is effective in detecting SGA . Indeed, it has been shown that ultrasound is superior,  which is why women in several risk groups (e.g. women with hypertension, women with high BMI) routinely undergo extra ultrasound in addition to what is included in the ANC basic program. However, not all SGA foetuses are identified, which is why better screening routines are needed. Signs of growth restriction seem to be a major risk factor for stillbirth, and ultrasound fetometry could increase the identification of SGA . Even if a large proportion of the stillbirths are SGA, there is evidence that the vast majority of antepartum deaths result from normal size neonates [49, 50]. There are several studies recently published on the identification of subclinical impairment of the placental function in normally grown neonates by evaluating the cerebral placental ratio (CPR) [51,52,53,54]. However, identification of normally grown fetuses at risk for adverse antepartum events is still unresolved and these conditions are likely to account for the majority of the unexplained causes of stillbirth.