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Last Updated: Monday, 16 February, 2004, 10:56 GMT
Midwife shortage risk to babies
Newborn baby
The study looked at labour units across the north-west
A shortage of midwives in the NHS is putting babies' lives at risk, a study has claimed.

Three-quarters of deliveries where there is a risk of death or brain damage occur when too few midwives are on duty, it found.

A year-long study of seven labour units found they were at least one midwife short in almost 40% of these cases.

Other examples were seen when there were too few experienced staff on duty, particularly at night.

There is a crisis in British midwifery
Brenda Ashcroft, University of Salford
Figures from the Nursing and Midwifery Council show there are now just over 27,000 qualified midwives in the UK, 8,000 less than there were 10 years ago.

The Royal College of Midwives has said 10,000 more are needed.


This latest research was carried out by Brenda Ashcroft, a lecturer in midwifery at the University of Salford, who observed the work of seven units across the north west as part of her PhD.

In the first part of her study, published in the British Medical Journal last year, Ms Ashcroft said the units she studied continued to carry out high-risk procedures such as performing epidurals, despite all being short of staff.

In her second report, Ms Ashcroft studied details of 37 cases where babies were deprived of oxygen during birth, which can cause brain damage.

She then interviewed the staff who had been involved in the birth.

She said 15 had shown signs of being severely affected at, or soon after birth, and it was possible the other 22 may also show signs of brain damage as they developed.

In all 37 cases, Ms Ashcroft said there had been poor decision-making or a delay in taking action.

She told BBC News Online: "The feedback I had from my last study showed the staff shortages I found were repeated across the rest of the country./

"We need to admit there is a problem, because there is quite a lot of denial that there is a problem."

She added: "Quite a few of the midwives I interviewed talked about feeling very stressed and short-staffed and said others had left because they could not cope with it.

"The fear of litigation is also very high.

"There is a crisis in British midwifery and the worrying thing is that if nothing is done, it is going to get even worse and even more lives will be lost or seriously damaged."

'Faint flicker'

Anne Aikman, 42, claims she lost her baby because the hospital where she was treated, which has not been named, did not provide the care she needed.

She has taken legal action, claiming her treatment was "reprehensible".

Mrs Aikman said: "On that particular night, I believe that my baby paid the ultimate price for a system that was in crisis."

Her baby's heart was beating normally when it was checked at 7.10pm, but shortly after 8pm Mrs Aikman began to suffer severe abdominal pain and dizziness.

When she was checked an hour later the baby's heartbeat had disappeared and an scanner revealed just a "faint flicker".

Doctors tried to deliver the baby, but the little boy died shortly after he was born at 10pm, and would have been profoundly handicapped had he lived.

An inquiry later found that even if she had gone into a ward at 8.30pm when "serious warning bells should have been ringing" the baby would have been safely delivered, she said.

A spokesman for the Department of Health said it was working to improve maternity services.

But she added: "We recognise that the rate of improvement and availability of choice may be governed by the recruitment of midwives and we are working hard to bring more into the service."

Why midwives are leaving the NHS
12 Sep 03  |  Health

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