Chronic Understaffing in Maternity Wards Could Lead to Further Challenges for the NHS

The recent member survey by the Royal College of Midwives revealed that 57% of members are considering leaving the profession, and of those, half planned to do so in the next 12 months. The RCM warns of an ‘exodus’ of midwives, that risks leaving many NHS maternity wards dangerously understaffed.

The crisis led midwives, mothers and supporters to stage ‘March with Midwives’ protests across the UK last month, to shine a light on the staffing crisis. According to the RCM, exhausted midwives are quitting the profession due to concerns about staff shortages and inadequate levels of care for mothers and babies. Protesters gathered in London, Birmingham, Manchester and Sheffield, plus dozens of other cities to highlight the issue and call the government to account.

With the pandemic already putting extra pressure on maternity units, the RCM is campaigning for the UK government to implement crisis management and fund emergency retention of staff.

The increased risk of birth injuries in an already under-pressure NHS

Added pressure on maternity wards can lead to patients receiving poor care, sometimes resulting in devastating outcomes for mothers and babies. While birth rates are down 5.4% from 2019-20, according to the latest NHS Maternity Statistics, medical negligence cases and settlements continue to create headlines across the country.

According to Richard Starkie, a Partner at York-based medical negligence specialists, Pryers Solicitors, “It remains rare that medical errors cause serious brain injury such as Cerebral Palsy. However, when it does occur, the effect on the child and their family can be utterly devastating. Additionally, it is very costly to the NHS.”

“Only around 10% of all medical negligence claims concern errors during labour, but these claims make up about 50% of the total NHS compensation bill.” This was the case of 12-year-old Caleb from Birmingham, who now lives with Cerebral Palsy as a result of oxygen starvation – Pryers helped him reach a settlement of £18 million. In another Pryers case, Emma from Suffolk, received £7 million compensation in settlement for Cerebral Palsy resulting from a prolonged period of bradycardia.

In July, the Government announced an extra £2.45 million funding to lead the first phase of the Avoiding Brain Injuries in Childbirth collaboration, working with the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (RCOG). Sadly, severe staffing shortages and inadequate levels of care continue to be a cause for concern. Perhaps this £2.45 million investment should be considered alongside NHS Resolution’s estimate of the “cost of harm” from maternity service errors, which it put at around £5.8 billion in 2019/20 alone.