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How will removing consultants from Cumbrian maternity hospital at night affect patient care?

In this country we are very fortunate to have maternity services that in a general sense provide a good standard care for mothers and babies and strive to ensure their safety. The national systems that have been put in place by the NHS over the years have improved outcomes and ensured mothers and babies are able to survive those traumatic situations that can sometimes arise during the birth process.

These safety systems are part of the fabric of the NHS and when they are not followed due to negligence the consequences can be catastrophic. As a partner in the JMW medical negligence team I have dealt with numerous tragic cases involving maternity failures and the blame usually lies with poor training of staff, staff shortages or a lack of communication. When the safety of a health system relies on certain standards being met it is unacceptable for them not to be, particularly when harm has been caused.

The law enables us as medical negligence solicitors to challenge these failures which can lead to changes being made that prevent the same situation arising. However when a hospital is considering removing a safety net which has been in place for many years as part of a cost cutting measure, what will the impact be on mothers and babies?

This worrying scenario is exactly what is on the table at the West Cumberland Hospital in Cumbria with a proposal to remove consultant cover from the hospital overnight. The midwives at the hospital are dismayed that this is even being considered and have written to the chief executive of the trust to explain their significant fears, which include the potential for mothers and babies to die or be severely injured (News and Star). The trust says it is just a proposal at this stage and will be subject to a full public consultation.

I have to say that I share the midwives’ concerns having seen what can happen to mothers and babies in an emergency situation if they do not get fast access to consultant care. The nature of birth means it is very unpredictable and things can change very quickly. What was previously thought to be a low risk birth can soon become a life or death situation and that’s where having consultants readily available can make all the difference. Their experience and knowledge is greater and more specialist than other doctors and midwives and they can recognise when there is a serious problem and take the appropriate action.

Of course consultants make mistakes too but it is widely agreed that there are fewer deaths and severe injuries when they are on hand. We should be looking to improve and enhance our current services, not downgrade them and move patient safety back several steps. Emergency situations do not just happen during the day and even one birth that falls foul of there being no consultant cover at night is one too many as the impact will ultimately be life-changing.

I hope the hospital trust reconsiders these plans and can find ways of becoming more efficient without removing a safety net which has no doubt saved countless lives.

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