The specialist clinical negligence team at Penningtons Manches LLP has welcomed the news that the Government is pledging to improve the safety of maternity units and to tackle its shameful place in international league tables.
The UK is ranked 33 out of 35 high-income countries in a 2011 study on stillbirths and has one of the highest rates in Europe.
The Health Secretary is today unveiling a new plan to reduce mortality rates among mothers and newborns as well as the number of lives blighted by brain injury.
Under the plan, NHS trusts with maternity services will have to show how they are performing and new data on stillbirth and neonatal death will be published at trust level so that results can be compared.
There is also a pledge to cut the number of brain injuries occurring during or soon after birth – albeit this seems focused more on reducing compensation costs paid out when things go wrong. Last year, the NHS paid out more than £1 billion in compensation to families of babies who died or suffered serious brain injuries, twice the figure a decade before. In total, there were more than 1,300 such cases last year, with failures to monitor babies’ heart rates accounting for one in four pay-outs. A number of these cases are handled by the team at Penningtons Manches and the awards are usually substantial due to the level of disability arising from negligence in birth management and the associated life long needs for care, therapy, specialist equipment and adapted accommodation that result.
The plan comes after the most senior midwife in the country warned that failings uncovered in the Morecambe Bay scandal, where 11 babies and one mother lost their lives, could be happening elsewhere in the NHS. Cathy Warwick, chief executive of the Royal College of Midwives, said problems still exist long after an investigation into the scandal found ‘failings at almost every level, from labour ward to the headquarters of national bodies’.
Under the proposals to make England one of the safest places in the world to give birth, maternity safety champions could be introduced to report to senior NHS executives.
From a pot of money totalling £4 million, NHS trusts will be able to buy new digital equipment for monitoring or training, such as cardiotocography equipment to monitor a baby’s heartbeat, which has been shown to save lives.
The aim is to reduce the number of stillbirths, neonatal deaths, maternal deaths and brain injuries that occur during or soon after birth by 20% by 2020 and 50% by 2030. According to the charity Tommy’s, around one in every 300 babies is stillborn in high-income countries such as the UK. In 2013, the UK still had one of the highest rates of stillbirth in Europe (4.7 per 1,000 total births). France and Bulgaria had the highest stillbirth rates, whereas Spain and Slovenia had the lowest in Europe.
Rebecca Morgan, clinical negligence associate, explains: “We act for a number of clients whose lives have been turned upside down as a result of failings during antenatal care, labour and/or neonatal care. Death or injury of a new baby is a devastating tragedy which leaves parents enduring agonising grief at a time which should have been filled with joy. Those babies suffering serious brain injury enter life restricted in almost all areas and will always be dependent on others. We welcome the proposals put forward by Mr Hunt and hope that with more support and greater transparency in maternity services, we will ensure every mother and baby receives appropriate and safe care to prevent so many of these injuries and deaths happening.”