Experts warn that shortage of doctors and midwives is putting lives at risk

Childbirth experts have warned that both mothers’ and babies’ lives are being put at risk after an NHS inquiry into its maternity services revealed serious shortages of doctors and midwives in maternity units in Britain.

The inquiry, published National Maternity and Perinatal Audit Organisational report 2017, revealed that 88 per cent of childbirth units are struggling to recruit enough middle-grade doctors to ensure proper staffing levels.

Researchers also found that the midwife shortage is so acute that fewer than one in six of the 750,000 women who give birth a year sees the same person throughout her pregnancy and aftercare.

According to the audit, the lack of midwives in Britain is so severe that many women are not getting the one-to-one care during labour that they are entitled to. It means some women are getting as few as two chances after the birth to discuss key issues such as breastfeeding and mental health.

The experts said the widespread lack of obstetricians was ‘extremely alarming’ because of the high risk that complications can occur unexpectedly in childbirth.

The findings show that although some improvements have been made, for example the number of midwife-led units situated beside acute hospitals quadrupling since 2014, the NHS still needs to make a lot of progress in order to fulfil pledges made by successive governments and NHS leaders to make childbirth a more positive experience.

The inquiry was undertaken jointly by the RCOG, the royal colleges representing midwives and paediatricians, and academics from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Health.

Lesley Regan, president of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (RCOG), said: “The difficulties in securing staffing in obstetric units is particularly worrying. Moving forward, it is anticipated that rota gaps will persist and worsen in most units. The pressures on maternity services are growing, which could compromise the experience for women and their families.”

Elizabeth Duff, senior policy adviser at the parenting charity NCT, said: “While midwives lead on care for healthy women and babies, they may need to refer for medical backup at any time. The lack of obstetricians is extremely alarming as a complication can arise very quickly in labour.

“Inadequate staffing levels cause ‘red flag’ events when women don’t receive essential care in a timely fashion. This may include delayed provision of prescribed medication such as painkillers or antibiotics, risking exacerbation of a dangerous infection.”

A spokeswoman for NHS England said: “There’s no ‘one size fits all’ approach to maternity care, and the report will act as an important benchmark for local areas, helping identify where improvements can be made, including ensuring the right staffing levels for the women and babies they care for.”