Thursday, 20 March 2008

Hospitals deny turning away women in labour



Five of the NHS trusts named and shamed for repeatedly closing their maternity units today denied they had ever turned away women in labour.

The denials came after the Conservatives published a survey of 103 NHS trusts in England which said more than two-fifths of hospitals had to turn away women in labour last year because they were full.

The trusts - in south-east London, Leicester, Nottingham and Bristol - said arrangements were in place for women to be treated at other local maternity units when they were full, and they had not received any complaints.

They said their services were under increasing pressure due to rising birth rates.

The Queen Elizabeth Hospital NHS Trust, in Woolwich, which closed its maternity unit 15 times last year, said the number of babies delivered had risen by around two-fifths in the six years since the hospital opened.

"We opened in 2001, when we delivered around 3,200 babies," a spokesman said. "Last year, we delivered around 4,200 - an increase of about 39%."

The spokesman said the hospital delivered between four and 25 babies a day.

If there were a high number of deliveries on two or three consecutive days, this could lead to a shortage of staff and beds, which would mean temporarily closing the maternity unit.

However, the spokesman said the trust had an arrangement in place in case the maternity unit was full, and expectant mothers would be admitted to two other trusts in the area.

"We only close when get another hospital to take the woman or women in, or if we do not have enough midwives due to sickness," he added.

"If a woman comes in and we don't have the capacity, we have an arrangement to send them on to either Lewisham hospital or the Queen Mary, in Sidcup.

"I'm not aware of women having to give birth at home or in the car park."

He said the trust was not aware of any complaints about expectant mothers being turned away.

The University Hospitals of Leicester NHS Trust, which closed its maternity unit 28 times last year, said there were 450 more deliveries than anticipated at its two maternity units over the same time.

A spokesman said the trust had "expected birth rates to remain constant at 10,000" but had "seen a 6% rise over the last 12 months to 10,450 in the 2007 calendar year".

The trust, which has one of the largest maternity services in England, had "never turned away mums in labour", he added.

"We operate across two sites - one at the Leicester Royal Infirmary and one at the Leicester General Hospital. They are three miles apart.

"Sometimes it is the case that one of those sites might reach its full capacity. When that happens, expectant mums go to the other. That is what these figures refer to."

The spokesman said both sites had never been full at the same time, "so it is not true that we are somehow turning away mums in labour".

A spokeswoman for Nottingham University Hospitals NHS Trust, which closed its maternity unit 14 times last year, said its services were operating at full capacity due to "above average" increases in the number of births locally.

When the unit was full, procedures were in place to send women to another large maternity unit in the city, she added.

North Bristol NHS Trust, which closed the maternity unit at its Southmead hospital 17 times last year, said the local birth rate had risen by "several hundred" last year.

Martin Morse, the medical director of the trust - which has the largest maternity unit in south-west England – said the unit had closed for a variety of reasons including high numbers of complex cases and staff shortages caused by illness.

"On the majority of occasions, this was for a few hours only, and was never for longer than 24 hours," he added.

Morse said arrangements were in place to transfer expectant mothers to others hospitals when the unit was "very busy" and the trust had not had any complaints about the closures.

"If a woman arrives at our unit in labour without prior warning, we always provide appropriate care," he said. "If our unit is working to full capacity, we divert women who contact us in the early stages of labour to the next maternity unit in line with good practice."

A spokesman for the Royal Berkshire NHS Foundation Trust, which closed 15 times last year, said: "It must be stressed that there has never been an occasion when a woman in labour arriving at the Royal Berkshire Hospital has been turned away."

If the maternity unit was at full capacity and had to be shut, expectant mothers would be advised that they might need to go to another local hospital, he added.

The Royal College of Midwives believes the NHS needs 5,000 more midwives to cope with rising demand over the next five years.

Last month, the health secretary, Alan Johnson, said the government would recruit an extra 4,000 midwives by 2012 to cope with the rising birth rate.

The latest Office for National Statistics figures show that women are choosing to have more babies than at any time since 1980.

The fertility rate - the number of births per woman - rose from 1.8 babies per woman in 2005 to 1.87 in 2006, the fifth annual rise in a row and the most babies born in a single year since 1993.

There were 53.8 live births per 1,000 women in England and Wales aged 35-39 in 2006 - a 7% increase on the previous year, according to the ONS.

David Batty guardian.co.uk, Thursday March 20 2008 Article history