New Maternity Safety Inquiry - improving patient safety or cutting claimant compensation?

New Maternity Safety Inquiry - improving patient safety or cutting claimant compensation?

Parliament’s Health and Social Care Committee has launched a new inquiry into the safety of maternity services in England. The announcement and ‘call for evidence’ follows a call by former Health Secretary, Rt Hon Jeremy Hunt MP, earlier this year for an independent inquiry into why poor maternity care and repeated cover ups keep happening at different hospitals. At that time, The Independent reported the former Health Secretary’s stated concerns about a maternity care culture in which a mistaken obsession with ‘normal births’ is delaying necessary caesarean sections. His criticisms included frustration at the NHS’s inability to learn from its repeated maternity safety mistakes, even after the shocking levels of harm and the lessons have been highlighted by previous inquiries. 

What is the Health and Social Care Committee? Is it really independent?

The Health and Social Care Committee is the Parliamentary committee which is responsible for scrutinising the work done by the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) and the public organisations it oversees, such as the NHS. Parliamentary committees are made up of MPs from across all political parties. They work on behalf of the general public through the House of Commons. 

The Health and Social Care Committee is currently chaired by Jeremy Hunt, who was Secretary of State for Health in the UK until 2018. This puts him in the potentially conflicted position of chairing an inquiry into maternity safety failings within the NHS and the DHSC’s response, policy and public spending decisions under his own leadership of the DHSC. Earlier in the year The Independent quoted his reported feelings of ‘liberation’ at leaving the government which he said left him free to criticise. It will take a great deal of openness, accountability and fearless criticism of the healthcare system which he formerly led, to convince the families of injured babies and the general public whom he now serves, that this Health and Social Care Committee’s maternity safety inquiry is independent enough to make a difference. 

What will the maternity safety inquiry do? 

The UK Parliament website states that the inquiry’s focus will be on recurrent failings in maternity services and what action is needed to improve safety for mothers and babies. The inquiry will examine evidence relating to concerns which are continuing despite substantial efforts to address these problems in recent years. The Committee intends to build on the investigations which followed the maternity scandals at Morecambe Bay NHS Trust, East Kent Hospitals University Trust and Shrewsbury and Telford Hospitals NHS Trust. 

What will the maternity safety inquiry mean for patients who have been harmed by unsafe maternity care?

The inquiry’s remit also includes considering whether clinical negligence and litigation processes need to be changed to improve the safety of maternity services, and the extent to which a “blame culture” affects medical advice and decision-making.

Sadly, despite the ongoing exemplary initiatives, such as RCOC’s Each Baby Counts and GIRFT, which are working to identify and address the causes of avoidable harm on site, within the maternity units where they occur, government initiatives invariably resort to finding financial shortcuts by seeking ‘reforms’ of litigation. Accountability for avoidable injury and injured patients’ rights to proper compensation depend on their ability to access independent specialist legal advice and, where necessary, representation in court proceedings. Shortcuts which diminish these patients’ rights can never result in NHS learning. They simply raise the level of the cover up by distracting attention away from the cause of the harm, dealing a double blow to those harmed by failing in the duty of candour to admit mistakes and hence, in some cases, denying them access to justice. 

The NHS’s failure to learn, and reduce the devastating harm that babies suffer, from negligent maternity care has inevitably left the NHS accountable for these patients’ compensation. The only effective and honourable way to reduce the NHS’s increasing liability for compensation is to stop the harm by changing the culture and practises which create it. 

RCOG’s and RCM’s response – safety must be the number one priority

The RCOG (Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists) and the RCM (Royal College of Midwives) have welcomed the launch of the Health and Social Care Committee’s inquiry into maternity safety. Both organisations issued statements reiterating that the safety of women and babies must be the number one priority maternity safety care. 

Dr Edward Morris, President of the RCOG, was quoted as saying:

All women and their babies deserve a safe birth, irrespective of location, ethnicity or age. While the majority of outcomes for pregnant women and their babies are positive, sadly in a small number of cases women and their babies do not receive high-quality care. Statistics show, for example, that black women are five times more likely to die in pregnancy, childbirth or in the six-month postpartum period compared with white women and the risk for Asian women is twice as high when compared with white women. This is unacceptable. Behind every shocking statistic is a woman and her baby who has died or suffered a poor health outcome. We have a duty to ensure that no woman or her family suffers unnecessarily and that we address inequity in the quality of maternity care, where it exists. The solutions to preventing unnecessary harm require a collaborative effort between Government, clinicians and women. We need to ensure that all obstetricians and midwives have the best training and support throughout their career in order to provide high-quality care. We need to better understand and tackle health disparities where they exist, and we need to ensure that maternity services have adequate resources, in terms of staff and equipment. Most of all, we must continue to learn from mistakes, improve services and support women and their families who have suffered. This inquiry is an important step to doing just that. The RCOG continues to be absolutely committed to improving maternity care across the UK.

Gill Walton, Chief Executive of RCM is quoted as saying:

It is a tragedy when things go wrong for women, babies and their families, but it is a positive step to talk about failures and find out why they happen. We must strive to learn from these terrible events so that we can do everything in our power to stop them happening again. We have also got to learn when things are being done well and share that experience and knowledge. Delivering the safest possible care must be the fundamental basis of everything health professionals do. They also need the support of the Government and healthcare commissioners to ensure staff and services are properly resourced.

Call for evidence – have your say

The Health and Social Care Committee’s ‘Safety of Maternity Services in England’ Inquiry is now calling for evidence. RCOG, RCM, Boyes Turner and many other organisations, charities, injured patients and their families will be contributing to the evidence that is heard by the committee, in the hope that maternity safety in England can be improved. 

You can have your say by giving your views here before the deadline of 4th September 2020. 

If you or a member of your family have suffered serious injury as a result of maternity negligence and you would like to find out more about making a claim, contact us by email on cerebralpalsy@boyesturner.com.

I try to assist lawyers by explaining, in clear and comprehensible terms, what the relevant issues are and where the strengths and weaknesses of the case lie.

DR PETER DEAR

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