Pregnancy and labour can be an extremely difficult time for the parents of babies who unexpectedly die or are left with a severe brain injury.
It is reported there are an estimated 1,000 cases where this happens every year. Every one of those tragedies involves a family that is desperate for answers.
As a specialist supporting mothers who have suffered medical negligence during pregnancy, I was delighted to see Jeremy Hunt announce major Government plans to make childbirth safer.
With an increased caseload of cases of this nature I can only hope that this will go some way to improve the care provided in maternity services.
As part of a package of measures to improve the care of pregnant women, the Health Secretary wants all unexplained cases of potentially avoidable harm or death to be independently investigated by the recently-formed Healthcare Safety Investigations Branch.
At present, it is up to each local hospital trust to investigate cases or for parents to take action themselves by bringing a clinical negligence case, with an average of two claims a week being settled.
Of those cases which involve brain injury, they can cost millions of pounds because of the need for lifetime care to those otherwise healthy babies being negligently harmed.
Mr Hunt hopes his initiative will give parents quick answers and ensure the NHS learn lessons that will prevent future tragedies, which in turn will help to reduce the growing bill for settling clinical negligence claims relating to babies with brain injuries.
As a birth negligence solicitor, I welcome this move and truly believe we need more openness about birth injuries. Doing this will allow health professionals to learn from mistakes, share best practices and help bring an end to what is termed the blame culture where healthcare professionals say they feel worried about legal action and the threat of losing their job.
I also support calls from the Government to change the law to allow coroners to investigate full-term stillbirths – which they cannot do at present. We learn that some parents have been told that the death of their child has been classified as a stillbirth (a baby born dead after 24 weeks of pregnancy) simply to avoid the need for an inquest. This is not satisfactory and only reinforces the cloak of secrecy which surrounds this sensitive issue.
In my experience, some parents are also misled to believe that the baby’s death was by natural cause and could not have been prevented, when sadly, we prove that this is not always the case.
Anything which makes childbirth safer should be applauded
The fact that Mr Hunt wants to halve the overall rate of stillbirths, deaths and brain injuries by 2025 – five years earlier than previously announced – is admirable. The unnecessary loss of one life is one too many.
Unfortunately, the number of babies who die during childbirth in the UK remains significantly higher than in other Western countries. In 2016, there were 3,112 deaths (one in every 224 births) – a figure which is worse than in Germany, Spain, Norway, Denmark and even Croatia, Estonia and Poland.
Shockingly, an in-depth NHS-backed review of deaths in cases where the baby was seemingly healthy when labour began found that improvements in care could have prevented the death in 80% of cases.
To flag up maternity units which are performing poorly, the Health Secretary wants each one to start recording data for the number of babies who suffer brain injuries during birth. Again, this is a step in the right direction that will help to prevent future tragedies. We would welcome this data to be openly publicised so that expectant parents can also have the knowledge, and possible freedom of choice as to where they bring their child into the world.
Families would welcome a more open approach
When parents turn to myself and the clinical negligence team here at Hudgell Solicitors, they often want answers about why their baby died or was born with serious life-changing injuries.
Often, they have not been told all of the facts and been made aware that, at some stage, something went wrong which had severe consequences. Hopefully, the measures outlined by Mr Hunt will allow hospital trusts to be more open and honest in future.
Until this level of openness exists, solicitors will continue to play a vital role for parents affected by such a challenging time in their life. In my experience, internal investigations often do not delve deep enough into the level of care provided. Sometimes failings and bad practices are only uncovered because legal action has been launched which explores the other potential outcomes had treatment been carried out differently.
Parents have a right to know what happened to their child. At the moment, they often need to make a formal complaint to gain access to all of the facts. When they’re already in a difficult place, it can be difficult to question hospital trusts and managers. By instructing lawyers to act on their behalf, they gain assurance that any possible failings in care will be fully investigated by independently-recognised specialists in the same medical field.
Although the safety of childbirth has improved dramatically in the last 30 years, medical professionals do make mistakes and should be held accountable for their actions. But, just like the proposals outlined by Mr Hunt, the reason for doing this should always be so that valuable lessons are learned to help prevent more unnecessary suffering in future.
If you have been affected by any issues which have been raise in this article, please get in touch and speak to us in confidence.