Objective To carry out a systematic review of the literature relating to economic aspects of alternative modes of delivery.
Methods A comprehensive literature search of the years 1990–1999 was conducted of electronic and non-electronic sources using a tested search strategy. Papers considered to contain useful cost or resource use data were read in full and classified according to their relevance to the review and their methodological quality. Relevant cost and resource use data were converted to £ sterling and inflated to 1998-1999 price levels.
Results The literature search resulted in 975 papers, 49 of which met criteria for the review. Thirty-two papers were from the USA where the organisation, structure and costs of health care are significantly different from that of other industrialised countries. The aggregate costs of different modes of delivery reported in these American studies were between four and five times higher than costs reported in other studies. The majority of included studies were of poor quality. Data from the better quality studies demonstrated that caesarean section costs a health service substantially more than other modes of delivery. The range of costs of an uncomplicated vaginal delivery were £629-£1298 compared with £1238-£3551 for a caesarean section. However, papers have so far only considered short term health service costs.
Conclusions Research is required to estimate the cost and resource use attributable to alternative modes of delivery. Future research should investigate the long term health service costs and the costs that arise outside the health service which are likely to vary according to mode of delivery.