The number of babies left brain-damaged by NHS mistakes has increased by a record amount amid a campaign for ‘normal’ births.
Official figures show the number of claims against maternity units for cases which ended in life-long disability has risen by almost a quarter in one year.
Safety experts said a ‘cult-like fixation’ on ‘normal birth’, with doctors kept out of the delivery room even when needed, has led to catastrophic errors and record negligence claims.
Health service officials said future payouts could exceed £20 million per case to cover round-the-clock care.
Parents made 232 such claims against the NHS in 2016-17, a 23 per cent rise from 188 cases the year before. The total value of those cases rose by almost one third, to a record high of almost £2 billion, with maternity claims now making up to 50 per cent of new negligence cases lodged.
Last week it emerged that the Royal College of Midwives had dropped a decade-long campaign for ‘normal births’ and abandoned the use of the term.
The focus has become increasingly controversial, with accusations that a drive for births without medical intervention has endangered lives, and left mothers feeling like failures if they do not give birth ‘naturally’.
An inquiry into the Morecambe Bay maternity scandal in which 11 babies died found they were left in danger because midwives embarked on the ‘over-zealous’ pursuit of natural childbirth ‘at any cost’.
Peter Walsh, Chief Executive of the safety charity Action against Medical Accidents, said he was alarmed by the figures. “More research needs to be done to understand what is leading to this increase, but moving away from the cult-like fixation with so-called ‘normal birth’ is a step in the right direction.”
Shortages of doctors and midwives, which have led to the closure of a number of units, with others downgraded to midwife-led units, have added to risks, he said.
Three in four newborns who die or are left brain-damaged in maternity units might have been saved with the right care.
The study by the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists examined 1,136 births in 2015 which ended in neonatal death, severe injury or still birth after a pregnancy came to term.
In 76 per cent of properly documented cases, the baby might have been saved from death or profound disability, had different action been taken.
James Titcombe, who has campaigned for maternity safety since the death of his son Joshua at Morecambe Bay in 2008, said: “The important thing is to find an appropriate balance;the idea of a normal birth ‘at any cost’ has had dangerous consequences. Part of this is about the fact the language makes women who don’t have a ‘normal birth’ feel like a failure but it’s also about the fact it leaves too many women and babies at risk at a point when midwives should be asking for help.”
In 2015, the Health Secretary began a drive to halve the number of stillbirths and deaths among newborn babies and mothers, amid concerns that Britain has some of the worst rates in the developed world. It is part of a safety campaign placing a ‘duty of candour’ on NHS staff.
But Steve Webber, Chairman of the Society of Clinical Injury Lawyers said the NHS was failing to learn lessons which could prevent tragedy, because it was unwilling to admit to failings and properly investigate them. “These cases are a very sad and painful tragedy for the families involved,” he said.
Philip Dunne, the Health Minister, said the end of the midwives campaign for ‘normal’ births was welcome.
He said: “The NHS is already one of the safest places in the world to give birth and we have 2,119 more midwives on our wards today than in 2010/ But we want NHS maternity care to be even better and have made tackling such tragic failures a priority. To deliver our ambition to halve the rate of stillbirths, neonatal and maternal deaths in England by 50 per cent, we are investing millions in training for staff and new safety equipment, part of the comprehensive national Maternity Safety Action Plan published in October.”
The latest figures from NHS Resolution, the litigation authority for the health service, are contained in its annual report.
Helen Vernon, the NHS Resolution Chief Executive, said: “Incidents arising in maternity care continue to dominate our expenditure due to the very high value of claims arising from brain injuries at birth. These incidents can have a devastating impact on those involved and we must do everything we can to learn from what happened.”
The organisation said a scheme begun in April aimed to ensure mistakes were better investigated, with lessons shared across the NHS.
But senior lawyers said the organisation’s methods were fuelling legal costs, forcing large numbers of cases which end up in a payout to go through the courts, when the NHS should have admitted liability early.
Source: The Daily Telegraph