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Government must rebuild women's faith in maternity care

Arti Shah
14/08/2017
Arti Shah is concerned that years of underfunding of UK maternity care has resulted in a lack of faith in its safety.

Sadly, the nature of the cases I and the medical negligence team undertake means we witness first-hand maternity care when it goes catastrophically wrong, both in private and public hospitals, resulting in terrible tragedy. It's important to state, however, that generally maternity care in the UK is excellent, but it has reached critical stage because of underfunding that has gone on for years.

I have recently been instructed in the heart-breaking case of a premature twin baby who died following unsuccessful attempts to deliver him by forceps at the Royal Sussex County Hospital in Brighton in June.

Unusually, the coroner at the inquest concluded medical misadventure had caused the baby's death, following the skull fractures he sustained during delivery. She highlighted 'deeply flawed' communication during the delivery and decisions to stray from protocols, which meant time was not taken to 'consider what was going on'. The baby's parents are devastated that their healthy twin born the same day will never meet his brother.

One of the effects of tragic stories such as these, which are often reported in the press, is that women begin to mistrust the maternity care on offer and the thought of going into labour becomes a terrifying event, full of danger. 

The recent report in the Guardian that revealed that maternity wards in England were forced to close 382 times in 2016, with women being 'pushed from pillar to post in the throes of labour', because of a shortage of midwives and equipment can only increase women's fear of what will happen to them when it's time to give birth.

To make matters worse, when tragedy does strike and vulnerable families look for legal help to get answers from reluctant hospital bodies, the Government now plans to undermine the help that will be available.

Plans to cap legal costs for claims involving damages worth less than £25,000 will likely mean bereaved families will have nowhere to turn legally, since lawyers will simply not be able to take on such cases. A baby's worth to its family is obviously way beyond a price tag, but the brutal truth is that, legally in financial terms, the death of a baby is a relatively low-value claim since a baby has no dependents nor has built up any wealth.

As the charity Action against Medical Accidents commented, the new rules would mean those bereaved by medical negligence will be unable to find a lawyer able to take their case, because the fees would not cover the costs of investigating the failings.

The current and previous Government made a promise to urgently improve maternity services and to make giving birth safer for women and their babies. Currently, Britain is ranked 33rd out of 35 in the developed world for its stillbirth rates, with the NHS is facing a rising number of cases where babies are left brain-damaged.

Steve Webber, chairman of the Society of Clinical Injury Lawyers, told the Guardian that the NHS 'is not learning from its mistakes'. 'We see this with the same claims coming from the same hospitals again and again. These claims are then denied and dragged out unnecessarily for far too long.'

Maternity care is at crisis point and it's up to the Government to move quickly and effectively to urgently repair its reputation and ensure women and babies are confident they will receive the standard of care they need.

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