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.

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.

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.

You have a healthy baby – that’s all that matters. Or is it?

Image courtesy of arztsamui at FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Image courtesy of arztsamui at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

I’ve written before about how phrases such as “Your baby’s healthy – that’s the most important thing” or “Time to put it behind you and move on” after a traumatic birth serve to minimise a woman’s feelings of pain or grief.

There’s a good post from an Australian site called BellyBelly that addresses this exact point. The writer, Sam McCulloch, spoke to a group of women about their traumatic birth experiences who said they found the phrase “at least you have a healthy baby” particularly painful – and it was often used by people close to them as well as health professionals.

McCulloch gives a helpful quote from Debby Gould of the birth trauma site BirthTalk:

“Imagine it’s your dream to go to Paris – you go! And you love it! However your plane was hijacked en route – you were terrified and it was the worst twenty hours of your life! Would the fact that you landed safely in Paris cancel the trauma of the flight? Would people say, ‘Well you got to go to Paris, that’s the important thing?’ I think not.”

Actually, I’m not sure that Debby is right about that – human beings are very good at putting a positive spin on someone else’s suffering – but you take her point.

BellyBelly has some good suggestions for things to say to women who have experienced a traumatic birth – some of these are better than others (“You are a strong, amazing woman” might be a bit too much for understated British sensibilities) but the central message is spot on: listen to what the woman is saying, don’t tell her how she should be feeling and don’t try to minimise her pain.

I once interviewed a woman whose baby died at birth. What stays most with me about that interview is that she said she would brace herself whenever someone began a sentence with the words “At least…”. Even when a baby has died, it seems, those around you feel the urge to point out the bright side. But as she said: “There was no silver lining, no reason and no bright side.”

Since then, whenever I talk to someone going through a difficult experience, I’ve tried to avoid using the phrase “At least”. It’s harder than you might think. But it’s something we could all try: the first step to helping someone recover is to stop pretending that their experience doesn’t really matter.