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Government unveils plans to make childbirth safer and reduce baby deaths

Posted: 29/11/2017

The Government has this week announced plans to bring the national maternity safety ambition forward by five years. Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt acknowledged that more must be done to learn from mistakes that tragically lead to stillbirth, neonatal death and birth injuries.

The national maternity safety ambition was originally set up in 2015 due to concerns that the number of baby deaths and injuries during childbirth were not being reduced in England and Wales. The target was to halve the rates of stillbirths, neonatal deaths, maternal deaths and brain injuries that occur during or shortly after birth by 2030. However, the Government has now moved the date forward by five years to 2025 and believes this step could save more than 4,000 lives.

England and Wales have one of the worst stillbirth rates in the Western world. Department of Health statistics show that amongst 700,000 births, there are 1,000 cases of unexpected death or serious brain injury in a year.

The move to bring forward the target date follows the recent Healthcare Quality Improvement Partnership report which highlights numerous failings in the care provided during pregnancy, labour, and in the neonatal period. Tragically, the report found that in 80% of cases, different care might have saved the baby. Failings and problems highlighted include the lack of staff and resources, poor record keeping, delays making decisions to urgently deliver the baby and problems monitoring the baby’s heart rate.

In addition to prioritising the national ambition, the Government is aiming to improve the way that mistakes in care are accounted for and investigated. Currently, if a baby does not survive, or is injured during birth, it is up to the local hospital to carry out an investigation. Coroners are only able to investigate deaths of babies who show signs of life after being born. This leaves parents with very little options to seek the answers that they need.

The Government has recognised that steps need to be taken to improve the way the NHS learns from errors and negligence. It has advised that a new system will be introduced which will see around 1,000 deaths and cases of severe injury referred to a Healthcare Safety Investigation Branch. Each case will then be independently assessed by safety experts. 

Changes to the law to allow coroners to investigate full-term stillbirths are being considered. The Government has also pledged to reduce the national pre-term birth rate from 8% to 6% in the UK by 2025. To achieve this, it will need to address numerous other concerns highlighted by the report, including the shortages of midwives and obstetricians.

Amy Milner, a senior associate in Penningtons Manches’ clinical negligence team, who specialises in claims relating to the loss or injury of a baby, comments: “The Government’s commitment to reducing the number of stillbirths and neonatal deaths is an important step in the right direction.

“At Penningtons Manches, we see many cases where an error or omission by a health professional, such as a midwife, general practitioner or an obstetrician, tragically results in the loss of a baby, which could have been avoided with the correct care. It is sometimes very difficult for parents to get answers as to what has happened which can result in lengthy litigation.

"More must be done to ensure that such mistakes are investigated and learnt from. We are pleased that the Government is recognising this issue and is making changes to address it as soon as possible.”

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