Frequently Asked Questions: Practitioner and Practice Characteristics of Certified Professional Midwives

Frequently Asked Questions: Practitioner and Practice Characteristics of Certified Professional Midwives

Questions about the education levels and routes to certification for Certified Professional Midwives often play a role in policy discussions about birth providers, but little current evidence has been available to inform these conversations. 

A new article in the Journal of Midwifery and Women’s Health takes a close look at data from the NARM 2011 Survey. We asked Melissa Cheyney, lead author of the article, to share with us this FAQ. This piece was developed to inform midwives, consumers, and policy makers on the outcomes.

Frequently Asked Questions: Practitioner and Practice Characteristics of Certified Professional Midwives

The demographics, education levels, routes to certification, and practice characteristics of currently practicing CPMs are assessed in a new article released September 18, 2015 in the Journal of Midwifery and Women’s Health.

The article Practitioner and Practice Characteristics of Certified Professional Midwives in the United States: Results of the 2011 North American Registry of Midwives Survey is authored by Melissa Cheyney and colleagues and uses  data collected from the 2011 North American Registry of Midwives (NARM) Survey. (Find the abstract here: Cheyney, M., Olsen, C., Bovbjerg, M., Everson, C., Darragh, I. and Potter, B. (2015), Practitioner and Practice Characteristics of Certified Professional Midwives in the United States: Results of the 2011 North American Registry of Midwives Survey. Journal of Midwifery & Women’s Health.)

What was the primary purpose of the study?

No data describing CPMs currently exist in the literature, though they attend the majority of home births in the United States. The study was designed to begin to fill this gap. Specifically, it aimed to answer three research questions: 

1) Who are CPMs in the United States, and how are they getting their educations?

2) Are there differences between CPMs practicing in regulated and unregulated states in terms of training routes or non-midwifery education levels?

3) Who are CPMs serving and how do they practice?

In addition, the project aimed to assess the degree to which US CPMs meet the ICM education standards. A concurrent, non-research goal was to provide updated information about the CPM credential, since this information does not currently appear in the peer-reviewed literature.

How about the response rate? How many currently practicing CPMs responded to the survey?

The initial invitation was sent to 1,391 CPMs, and 849 (61%) responded. Because the survey was not originally designed for research purposes, the original survey respondents were sent an email explicitly requesting consent to have their data used for research. Of the 849 initial respondents, 568 provided consent for their responses to be analyzed; 281 did not respond. The final response rate was 41%.

Is it possible to generalize to the entire population of practicing CPMs, given the response rate of 41%?

Very likely yes, because the researchers also completed something called a non-response bias analysis. This entailed calling a random 10% subsample of the initial non-respondents and asking them an abbreviated version of the survey over the phone. Because the original respondents and the non-respondent group did not differ significantly in any key characteristics or responses, the findings presented in the study very likely accurately reflect the population of currently practicing CPMs.

What did the study find regarding non-midwifery education levels for CPMs?

More than 90% of the 568 respondents attended at least some college, and 47.1% hold a bachelor’s degree or greater. Only 0.5% of respondents (n=3) did not have high school degrees or the equivalent in 2011.

How long do CPMs spend in training prior to taking on the role of primary midwife?

CPMs spent a median of 3 years in training before attending births as a primary midwife.  Sixty one percent met the International Confederation of Midwives (ICM)-recommended 3 years of training, however, 38.9% of currently practicing CPMs did not.

This is at least partially explained by the fact that “grand” CPMs (CPMs who have been practicing for 25 years or more) comprise 19% of currently-practicing CPMs. Midwives who began practicing this long ago, before certification was available, often began primary practice very early in their careers and sometimes with little or no formal training. These CPMs describe being taught by birth, other midwives, and home-birth-friendly physicians as they pieced together their training in the 1970s and 1980s, before formal training or credentialing opportunities existed. As the profession has matured and formal training routes have been developed, it is much less common today for CPMs to enter primary practice before the 3-year mark.

In addition, because of the variability in volume of births at training sites, the study also found that student midwives training in high-volume birth centers can easily attend more than 100 births per year during their 1 to 2-year internships, allowing them to acquiring their CPM prior to the internationally-recommended 3-year training period. Conversely, student midwives in low-volume home birth apprenticeships might take several years to qualify to sit for the NARM examination having attended fewer than 100 births. The authors conclude that within the current competency-based system of CPM education in the United States, length of time to primary practice may not always be the most useful way of estimating competency. Some combination of volume and years in training may be more helpful in this regard.

So what pathways to certification are CPMs actually using?

The study found that 48.5% utilized the Portfolio Evaluation Process (PEP), 36.9% graduated from a Midwifery Education and Accreditation Council (MEAC)-accredited school, 14.5% were already licensed by a state as a direct-entry midwife, and 0.7% were already a CNM or CM. However, the researchers stress that routes to certification (that is how CPMs apply to sit for the NARM examination) should not be confused with how CPMs get trained. The study found that CPMs reported a blended education pathway that commonly involved a mixture of MEAC-accredited schooling and apprenticeship in home and birth center practices, regardless of which (MEAC- or PEP-route, for example) pathway to certification the midwives used to acquire permission to sit for the NARM examination.

Debates over the CPM credential have focused on the relative merits or limitations of the two primary routes to certification: graduation from a MEAC-accredited school or successful completion of the PEP. How does this study inform that discussion?

This study found that CPM training is far more complex than this dichotomy suggests. While respondents largely cited either the PEP or MEAC route to certification, a closer look at how midwives are getting their educations showed that the vast majority of respondents combined multiple training opportunities over the course of their educations, depending on two key variables: 1) whether or not they lived in a regulated state with an accredited school and 2) whether they had sufficient funds to attend one of these schools for the entirety of their educations. Although each applicant must designate a single pathway on their NARM application, economic and legal barriers cause many to create a patchwork training trajectory that combine aspects of MEAC and PEP. As a result, the authors would argue that the "MEAC or PEP" dichotomy is a false one.

What did the study find regarding differences between CPMs living in regulated vs. unregulated states?

The regulatory status of the CPM credential in each respondent’s state was found to have an association with the certification pathway chosen by midwives. Analyses showed a significant difference (P < .001) between certification pathways chosen by midwives residing in regulated versus unregulated states. The PEP process was more likely to be used in unregulated states, while MEAC-accredited schools and the state licensed midwife pathway were more likely to be used in states where CPMs are licensed and regulated.

What about the demographic characteristics of CPMs? How diverse is the population of providers?

One-fifth (21%) of respondents identified as midwives of color. While nearly one-third (31.8%) of CPM respondents reported that 95% or more of the clients they serve are white, 5.2% serve populations that are 90% or more women of color. CPMs of color were also found to be significantly more likely to serve clients of color. Given the finding that midwives’ self-reported ethnicity/cultural group is strongly associated with the client population served, the authors identify the lack of racial, ethnic, and cultural diversity in the profession as a major concern.

Cheyney and colleagues state that while, “it is unclear from our results whether midwives of color seek clients of color or vice versa, it is clear that without more midwives of color, childbearing families of color will have limited access to culturally-matched midwifery care and particularly to home birth services. Home and birth center birth may currently be a white middle-class phenomenon in the United States not because women of color prefer hospital birth, but because they have been systematically excluded from choice in childbearing by larger structures of inequality.” 

The same economic and legal barriers that impact all CPM education may be disproportionately impacting midwifery candidates of color. These barriers, compounded with larger issues of systemic inequality, may be sufficient to bar entry to the profession for many potential midwives of color.

Melissa Cheyney PhD, CPM, LDM
Chair, Midwives Alliance Division of Research


Thank you for this great FAQ! It is informative and helpful! I look forward to reading the entire article! Congratulations on yet another published article! vicki hedley

Hi, thank you for this summary of the work! Where can I find more about DEM way of things in Oregon?

It is hard to have faith after getting through the survey. But thanks to Melissa Cheyney who helped in getting the best information about this.

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