Transforming women’s health

Willow Midwives tailors health practices to fit womenÂ’s needs

At Willow Midwives, women are given the choice of having their babies on a bed or in a tub full of warm water. Credit: Jill Bachelder

WEST CALHOUN — The Willow Midwives women’s clinic and freestanding birth center is trying to provide a new, more sensitive alternative to traditional providers of women’s care.

The first of its kind to be owned and operated by a certified nurse midwife (CNM) in Minnesota, the clinic offers many services to women, including pregnancy and birth support, annual Well Woman appointments to check up on women’s overall health, family planning and pre- and post-menopausal health care.

Cheryl Heitkamp, the CNM who started the clinic, said her over 25 years working in women’s health and the experience of having five children of her own are what inspired her to start her clinic.

“I’ve seen where we fall short inside of the system – inside of the hospitals, inside of the clinics – and I think that women really deserve to be cared for while they’re pregnant and to be heard,” Heitkamp said.

At Willow Midwives, low-to-the-ground heated massage chairs replace the cold metal tables usually used in health examinations. The chairs are covered with cloth, not paper; the patients are given robes to wear instead of hospital gowns; and metal stirrups have been dropped in favor of a foam wedge that helps support a woman during her exam.

According to the clinic’s former administrator, Liz Hoffman, these changes from the norm were made to detract from the austere environment of a doctor’s office.

“Instead of doing it like it’s always been done, we decided to think about what would make our experience better when we were going to a yearly exam or prenatal,” Hoffman said. “It [usually] just feels so sterile and uncomfortable and humiliating, and we just wanted to take the humiliation out of your Well Woman care. We felt like there should be more dignity involved in that.”

Heitkamp also noted that she and her two fellow midwives who work at the clinic put an emphasis on learning about their patients’ lives in order to determine the care they need.

“We try to understand if they have cultural differences that we’re not aware of, we ask them to teach us. If there are certain things about them or their family that are unique we want to hear about that, so we can be sensitive and provide the kind of service that they’re looking for,” she said.

The opening of the clinic was made possible after new legislation went into effect on January 1 that allowed Advanced Practice Registered Nurses, or APRNs, the freedom to independently own their own practices as long as they are accredited, ending the longstanding requirement that they must work under oversight from a physician.

The legislation makes Minnesota the nineteenth state in the country to allow freestanding birth centers owned by APRNs.

Heitkamp was among a group of midwives who testified in front of the Minnesota legislature in 2001, as part of an effort to bring freestanding birth centers to Minnesota. The group also included Kitty Ernst, an active member of the midwife community who has been very involved in the national push for freestanding birth centers.

The legislature ruled in favor of the bill, but they required a study to be done on the feasibility and types of regulatory systems needed for birth centers. According to Heitkamp, the state did not have the funds to complete the study, so the birth centers were not allowed to practice until 2010, when a new bill licensing birth centers was finally passed.

Heitkamp said that to comply with the new legislation, any new clinic must first obtain state-issued temporary license before it can open and has a six-month window during which it must be accredited. Only after this can the clinic apply to the state for a permanent license.

Hoffman said that that the clinic is off to a busy start, and that reactions to the clinic have been very positive.

“Women come in and they’re expecting the normal model of care, and when they see the small touches that we’ve brought in to the space and the way we’ve changed the way they receive their care, you know, their shoulders go down. They feel like we really understand them,” she said.

Willow Midwives is located in Suite 585 of the Lake Calhoun Executive Center, 3033 Excelsior Blvd.