Too many babies are dying at birth

Last week saw the publication of two reports on the deaths of newborn babies. Each Baby Counts, published by the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (RCOG), found that three-quarters of the babies who die or are brain damaged during childbirth in the UK might have been saved by better medical care.

The MBRRACE report found that between 2013 and 2015, the stillbirth rate fell from 4.2 to 3.87 per 1,000 births. That’s good news, though the report noted that the stillbirth rate is still higher than many similar European countries and that there is “significant variation” across the UK – variation that can’t be explained simply by factors such as poverty or maternal age. In other words, the difference is likely to be the result of different practices in different hospitals.

Each Baby Counts investigated the cases of 1136 cases of babies born in the UK in 2015 who either suffered brain damage during birth, or died during delivery or in the next week. Of those, the report estimates that 550 babies could have been saved. Shockingly, in 409 cases, the Each Baby Counts team wasn’t able to determine whether the babies could have been saved because the information provided wasn’t good enough.

And that’s the real scandal. The best way to improve medical care and prevent unnecessary deaths is through the collection and analysis of evidence so that we can determine best practice that can then be followed by every hospital in the country.

Childbirth is a complicated business because it can involve countless small decisions that women have to make in conjunction with their caregivers. Each one of those decisions has the potential to increase or decrease the risk of harm to the mother and baby. Decisions are rarely easy to make because every intervention (induction, foetal monitoring, epidural, episiotomy, forceps…) can increase some risks while decreasing others. This is why evidence is so important.

Doctors don’t always know best

Ben Goldacre illustrates the importance of evidence through the example of head injuries. In a blogpost, he writes:

“For many years, it was common to treat everyone who had a serious head injury with steroids. This made perfect sense on paper: head injuries cause the brain to swell up, which can cause important structures to be crushed inside our rigid skulls; but steroids reduce swelling (this is why you have steroid injections for a swollen knee), so they should improve survival. Nobody ran a trial on this for many years. In fact, it was widely argued that randomising unconscious patients in A&E to have steroids or not would be unethical and unfair, so trials were actively blocked. When a trial was finally conducted, it turned out that steroids actually increased the chances of dying, after a head injury.”

It may be that some midwives and obstetricians have instinctive beliefs about reducing the harm to mother and baby that turn out to be completely wrong. It’s hard to know until we collect the evidence. Yet we do know that some trusts, such as Southmead Hospital in Bristol, and Barking, Havering and Redbridge University Hospitals, have adopted good practice that has led to the reduction of birth injuries in the first case, and of errors relating to the CTG trace in the second (errors caused by misreading the CTG trace are a common cause of injury and death in newborn babies).

Other countries manage to have far fewer babies die at birth than we do. It’s not an impossible dream. But if we are serious about saving the lives of newborn babies, then we have to start with the absolute basics: collecting the data to find out why they are dying.

Why forceps can be dangerous

 

Forceps deliveries and Ventouse deliveries are significantly more dangerous for both mother and baby than a caesarean section, according to new research published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal. The risk of severe complications to the baby is 80% higher.

The study looked at 187,234 births. The main finding was that “among women with dystocia and prolonged second stage of labour, midpelvic operative vaginal delivery was associated with higher rates of severe perinatal morbidity and mortality compared with cesarean delivery.” To put it more simply, more babies died or were injured during an instrumental delivery than during a caesarean section. Although the study found that maternal mortality was no higher during an instrumental delivery, “rates of obstetric trauma” (this refers mainly to tearing) were higher.

This matters because in the UK, as in many other countries, there are moves to reduce the caesarean section rate, partly because caesareans are expensive, and partly because of the risks attached to abdominal surgery. The caesarean rate in this country is one in four, which many experts think is too high – and as a result, many hospitals now have “normal birth” targets.

The findings of the new research suggest that this drive is misguided. There have been a number of well-publicised cases over the past five years of babies dying after the mother was refused a caesarean section.

But there is a risk to the mother too. The Australian obstetrician Hans Peter Dietz has been outspoken about the target to reduce caesarean section rates in New South Wales, which has resulted in a huge increase in forceps deliveries, but also far more cases of women with severe pelvic floor and anal sphincter damage – something that can be absolutely devastating for women. Dr Dietz found that 81% of women who had forceps deliveries suffered internal damage.

Obviously there are caveats. A response to the research article by obstetrician Nicholas Pairaudeau argues that the decision to use or not use forceps should depend on factors such as the size of the woman’s pelvis and the positioning of the baby. He writes: “Even though I have used forceps for nearly 50 years I have, in my own practice, reduced many of the complications quoted, by careful selection of the patient, forceps, and type of pelvis. C-section is not a simple option in many cases, and is associated with major complications too.”

The question of risk in childbirth is never a simple one: often it’s a case of having to decide which is the lesser of two risky options. The worry is, however, that by setting a target to reduce caesareans, hospitals then become focused on the process rather than outcomes. A caesarean in itself is not a bad outcome: a dead or injured mother or baby is. Doctors’ decisions should be based entirely on whether they will lead to a healthy mother and baby – not on they meet an arbitrary external target.

We need better postnatal care – and Mumsnet is on the case

I’ve been delighted to see the mighty Mumsnet launch a campaign to improve postnatal care in hospitals. Women with postnatal PTSD often mention poor postnatal care as a contributing factor.

After a traumatic birth in which you have nearly died, or your baby has nearly died, or you have lost several pints of blood, or been in pain for hours but denied drugs, or experienced a violent forceps delivery, or had multiple painful stitches, or had a retained placenta, or an emergency c-section after the baby’s heartrate has dipped – or, as is often the case, a combination of several of those things – then it’s not unreasonable to imagine that you will be treated gently, with some kindness and consideration.

In practice, this is far from the case. When Mumsnet asked women to recount their experiences of postnatal care, they offered depressingly similar stories of being left for hours and hours unattended, often on a noisy postnatal ward, or refused help with breastfeeding, or not being given food and drink despite being too ill to get out of bed.

Some of this can be put down to staff being overworked, but the dismissive, unkind attitude that accompanies it cannot. In an article for the Independent last year, I wrote about Rachael, who after a deeply traumatic emergency c-section resulting from placental abruption, was told by a midwife: “Don’t go thinking you’re anything special – we see bigger abruptions than you had.”

A new blogpost describes an experience that is all too typical. The writer, who blogs under the name IslandLiving, recounts an immensely difficult labour ending in c-section. Left alone with her baby afterwards, she felt petrified. She goes on:

“I stayed in a side room for two days. In those two days I struggled. I felt overwhelmed and scared. I was petrified. I was told to ring the bell, that I was not to pick up my baby myself. Yet every time I rang the bell no one came. Every time I cried for help no one came. I struggled out of bed because that was my job. I struggled to feed her because that was my job. I struggled to change her because that was my job. Yet, I didn’t know if I was doing my job properly. I didn’t know if she was getting any milk. I needed help and it didn’t come. The nights were the worse as I would feel alone, like I was ringing a bell into the great abyss. No one ever came.”

IslandLiving says, generously, that she doesn’t blame the nurses or the midwives because the unit was understaffed. But it depends whether you see caring for a woman after she’s given birth as a fundamental part of the job or not. If it’s not – if adequate postnatal care is simply a “nice to have” rather than an absolutely essential part of the midwife role – why expect women to stay in hospital at all? Why not send them straight home?

Apart from being inhumane, skimping on postnatal care makes no sense economically, because it so often leads to physical or mental health problems that need treatment. One of the women quoted by Mumsnet wrote that she asked for help cleaning round her episiotomy scar, but was told not to worry because “it’s a dirty part of the body anyway”. She ended up with a major infection.

Poor care isn’t inevitable: a few Mumsnetters gave examples of excellent care. It’s high time that other maternity units followed suit.

How can we stop so many babies dying at birth?

An investigation by the HSJ’s Shaun Lintern, also reported in the Nursing Times, has found that many babies are dying at birth as the result of a simple mistake: a failure to correctly read the CTG trace, which monitors the baby’s heart rate:

“Data from NHS Resolution – formally the NHS Litigation Authority – shows there were almost 300 clinical negligence claims between 2011 and 2016 where the primary cause of the injury was a failure to respond to an abnormal foetal heart rate.”

Lintern points out that this problem has been known about for a long time: reports by the NHS Litigation Authority in 2009 and 2012 made similar findings.

There have been recent well-publicised cases, he notes, where a failure to read the trace correctly resulted in tragedy: in February, for example, coroner David Hinchliffe said of baby Maxim Karpovich, who died in 2015:

“It was apparent that the midwives involved with Maxim’s birth and the junior obstetrician appeared not to understand that the CTG trace was abnormal on several occasions.

“This inquest and many previously have caused me to note that midwives and obstetricians lack the core skills to interpret CTG tracings.”

It’s easy at this point to blame the shortage of midwives, which is putting a lot of midwives under pressure – and indeed the Royal College of Midwives (RCM) spokesperson quoted in the piece does just that. She also blames outdated equipment and the increasing complexity of birth.

The Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (RCOG) spokesperson, on the other hand, says that errors could be reduced with a focus on multidisciplinary training:

“There shouldn’t be a brick wall around obstetrics and a brick wall around midwifery.”

In hospitals, safety is paramount. The death of a baby should be an exceptional circumstance, and when it happens, staff should work together to review why it happened and what can be done to stop it happening again. This is what happens in organisations that have a culture of safety. The fact that in so many NHS hospitals this doesn’t happen is shocking.

Lintern goes on to mention Barking, Havering and Redbridge University Hospitals NHS Trust, which set out to tackle its rate of CTG errors. It had found that 75% of maternity “incidents” included some form of CTG error in 2015-16, but the trust had invested in staff training, equipment and an improvement in culture. In the past 11 months the trust hasn’t had a single CTG error.

According to the trust’s director of midwifery, Wendy Matthews:

“We have put in place quite a rigorous process. We’ve developed a culture of quality and safety and learning from errors which is very much about the multi-disciplinary team.”

This is a remarkable achievement. Yet it doesn’t sound as if there was a magic solution to the problem – simply that the trust approached the problem sensibly by training staff to read the CTG correctly, buying more effective equipment and working together to learn from mistakes.

In an ideal world, what would happen next is that every other maternity unit in the country would look at what Barking, Havering and Redbridge did and copy its example. This would save the NHS hundreds of millions of pounds a year in litigation – and more importantly, save the lives of hundreds of babies who die needlessly at birth.

The drug that could cut deaths from postpartum haemorrhage by a third

Every year, about 100,000 women die from haemorrhage after childbirth. Most of these deaths are in poorer countries such as Somalia or Sierra Leone where many give birth at home, without access to medical care. Even women who haemorrhage in hospital may still die, though sometimes doctors will perform a life-saving hysterectomy.

In Western countries, although postpartum haemorrhage (PPH) is relatively common (in England, 13.8% of women haemorrhage after childbirth), most women who need it will receive an instant blood transfusion. Deaths from PPH are rare.

So it’s extremely good news that a new trial has shown that administering a simple, cheap drug called tranexamic acid, which works by stopping blood clots from breaking down, could potentially save the lives of about a third of women who currently die from PPH. The study was carried out by the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine in collaboration with 193 hospitals in Africa and Asia.

The most extraordinary part of this story is that tranexamic acid was discovered in the 1960s by a Japanese husband-and-wife research team, Shosuke and Utako Okamoto. They were unable to persuade doctors to perform a clinical trial, so the drug has mostly been used as a treatment for heavy periods and to reduce bleeding as a result of trauma.The WHO currently recommends its use for PPH as a second line treatment if the first line treatment of uteronics (drugs to contract the uterus) fails. This new research shows its efficacy as a first line treatment.

Even though its impact will be smaller, it is also good news for women in developed countries. Many women who suffer from PTSD after childbirth trace it back to their experience of severe PPH, and the terror of believing they were about to die. If administering tranexamic acid eventually becomes standard practice to reduce haemorrhage, then for those women, birth will become a less frightening experience.

Why do so many babies die – and why aren’t we doing something about it?

Why, asks an article in the Telegraph, do 2,000 babies die needlessly during childbirth every year?

It’s a question that ought to bring us up short. Two thousand deaths is a huge number: compare it to, say, the number of people killed in road accidents in the UK, which is now down to about 1,700 a year.

The article’s writer, Mary Riddell, is talking about needless deaths: in total, there are 3,600 stillbirths a year in the UK, representing one in every 200 births. Some deaths can’t be avoided. So why aren’t we doing more about the ones that can?

It’s curious how complacent we are as a society about the problem of medical negligence. In the US, a study has estimated that medical errors are the third leading cause of death, behind heart disease and cancer. Somewhere between 210,000 and 440,000 patients who go to hospital in the US each year “suffer some type of preventable harm that contributes to their death”. As far as I know, however, no similar study has been carried out in the UK.

Childbirth injuries and deaths can be avoided

We do know that NHS doctors and midwives make mistakes during birth. According to the Telegraph article, compensation claims for childbirth errors have tripled in 10 years. It compares figures for England with those for Sweden:

“In the last five years, Sweden has reduced the number of serious birth injuries from 20 per 100,000 babies to five, compared with the English rate of 30 in every 100,000 babies.”

The Swedish figures show that many injuries and deaths relating to childbirth are avoidable. The Telegraph article goes on to look at a hospital that has got it right: Southmead Hospital in Bristol, which it describes as “probably the safest place in the world to give birth”. Fifteen years ago, Southmead introduced Practical Obstetric Multi-Professional Training, or PROMPT – a method of collaborative working and learning from mistakes. During that time, there has been a 50-70% reduction in common birth injuries.

How the PROMPT approach works

What PROMPT does is to make sure that all members of a team – obstetricians, midwives, anaesthetists – are on the same page when it comes to responding to a medical emergency. A representative group of professionals receive the training together and then take it back and train other staff in their own hospital. It means that if, for example, a baby’s shoulder becomes stuck, everyone knows what to do.

The only extraordinary thing about this is that it’s not already universally applied: you’d hope health professionals would all know exactly how to respond to any likely childbirth emergency. But in the less effective maternity units, that doesn’t seem to be the case – the Kirkup Review into failings at the maternity unit of Furness General Hospital exposed an apparently casual attitude towards safety. In James Titcombe’s account of his son Joshua’s death at Furness, it was striking that none of those involved seemed interested in understanding why he had died or putting measures in place to stop anything similar happening again.

A fundamental change in approach is needed. Everyone makes mistakes, but human error can be minimised if agreed best procedures are in place; and a culture of openness where people are encouraged to own up to, and reflect on, their mistakes enables everyone to learn and improve their practice in future. This is how the aviation industry treats mistakes, and it works well.

The government’s proposed rapid resolution and redress scheme, in which litigation claims could be settled quickly without recourse to the courts may help to end the culture of secrecy and cover-up and bring about a more open approach. The proposals are not without their flaws (safeguards need to be in place to make sure that rapid redress is also accompanied by a desire to learn from mistakes – which isn’t a given), but they are surely a step in the right direction. Certainly many families will be grateful for not having to wait years for compensation while litigation drags on.

It could be that we are finally on the cusp of a change that campaigners have been fighting for over many years. If so, we may look back on those 2,000 baby deaths every year and wonder why we ever tolerated it.

Thinking positively about childbirth – why did Milli Hill’s article provoke such an angry response?

 

Two weeks ago, Milli Hill published an article in the Telegraph about why we shouldn’t focus on pain when we talk to pregnant women about childbirth. Originally published under the clickbaity headline (which Hill didn’t write, and has since been changed), “The myth of the painful birth – and why it’s not nearly so bad as women believe”, the article argued that by emphasising the pain of childbirth when we talk to women, we are “setting them up to fail”.

The article provoked a number of responses challenging Hill’s view, including my own piece in the Independent, a characteristically robust blogpost by “skeptical OB” Dr Amy Tuteur in which she accused Hill of “gaslighting” women and an article by Cath Janes in Standard Issue, which talked about her own experiences of a painful birth that triggered severe PND and PTSD. Cath’s piece was, as is her style, both dark and funny – but Hill didn’t like it and asked Standard Issue to take it down. The magazine initially complied, and then republished it minus one sentence that Hill had particularly objected to, and also gave Hill a right-of-reply. The whole saga also provoked a debate on Mumsnet about who was right, with Tuteur, Janes and Hill all weighing in.

There is probably not much hope at this point of a calm, rational debate about the issue. Hill, I think, was taken by surprise at the impassioned response to her article – she thinks of herself as one of the good guys, whose sole aim is to help women have a better experience of childbirth. So what is it about her piece that made women so angry?

Minimising women’s pain

Judging by comments I’ve seen on Mumsnet, Twitter and Facebook, the answer is that, for many women, their experience is the opposite of what Hill describes. Rather than going into childbirth frightened, they went in feeling positive and upbeat – and were then shocked that the experience was much more painful and unpleasant than they expected. Instead of feeling that the pain of childbirth was overstated, they felt it was minimised. When women have had a particularly traumatic birth, they often find that other people play down their experience and tell them that it can’t have been as bad as they thought, that they must be exaggerating, that the health professionals who let them down during labour had their best interests at heart – and in any case, they have a healthy baby, so what else matters? This is why Hill’s article touched a nerve – if you’re already used to having your experience minimised by others, the idea that you shouldn’t talk about the pain of childbirth feels like yet another attempt to get you to shut up.

Think positive!

People also took issue with Hill’s article argument that going into labour with a more positive attitude can help women have a better experience. In her words: “At the moment, we simply do not know what birth would be like for women if they were given more positive messages and went into labour feeling strong, confident and capable.”

The idea that “positive thinking” can help create a different reality is one of the most pervasive – and pernicious – ideas of our times. Even cancer patients are exhorted to think positively about their illness, as if mere thinking can banish one of the most deadly of diseases. It’s a view that Barbara Ehrenreich has magnificently demolished in Smile or Die: How Positive Thinking Fooled America and the World.

For anyone on the receiving end of this view, it’s worse than exasperating – being told that a positive attitude can reduce pain has an unspoken corollary, which is that if you felt pain anyway, it must have been your fault for not being positive enough. The most inflammatory part of Hill’s piece reads: “…when you talk to women who are prepared to break with convention and say their labour was not painful, words like ‘intense’ and ‘powerful’ come up again and again. It suggests that it’s the way that these women talk and think about these sensations that’s different, rather than the sensations themselves.”

Well, no. What it suggests to me is that women have vastly different experiences of childbirth – some women experience “intense feelings” while others feel extreme pain. Even the book of Genesis, written 3,500 years ago, talks about the pain of childbearing, with no word from God, unfortunately, about focusing on the positive.

No wonder some women, reading Hill’s article, felt that their desire to tell their own story was, once again, being undermined. It’s a wearily familiar pattern: a news report in the Telegraph this week reveals that women reporting gynaecological problems to their GP are often ignored or belittled.

So, here’s my bold suggestion: why not listen to what women actually say about their experiences, rather than telling them how they ought to feel? If we all, health professionals included, do that, there’s a chance, just a chance, that women’s experience of childbirth will improve.