Much Progress Still To Be Made On Stillbirths

21st January 2016 Clinical Negligence

This week has been one of highs and lows, as far as the topic of stillbirths is concerned.

As a lawyer representing families who have suffered in this way, I attended a symposium in London, which brought together individuals with a breadth of experience and understanding of stillbirth, all of whom are committed to trying to solve the problem and with the overall goal of ending preventable stillbirths worldwide by 2030.

The event coincided with the publication of a major study in The Lancet which detailed the scale of the issue and was the culmination of over two years' research into the cause and effect of stillbirth worldwide.

The study included research showing how Britain is under-performing - with a stillbirth rate twice that of Iceland, the best performing country.

If that wasn't sobering enough, further indications of the obstacles stopping us from acquiring even greater knowledge about incidence of stillbirth followed just days later.

Dr Bill Kirkup is the author of a 2015 report into sub-standard care at the University Hospitals Morecambe Bay Trust which led to the deaths of 11 babies and one mother. That document, you may recall, concluded that a 'lethal mix' of denial and failure had been to blame.

He has spoken out in favour of introducing new legislation to replace a 63-year-old law (the Births and Deaths Registration Act 1953) which prevents a full investigation in the form of an inquest into stillbirths.

I agree with his suggestion that such a hearing would help parents uncover the true facts about their child's death, a process which can take several years and add considerable frustration to their distress.

It is a common theme of the many cases which myself and my colleagues in JMW's Clinical Negligence department have dealt with. Having lost a child, parents want to know what really happened and why in order that similar situations will not happen again.

Dr Kirkup and others believe that the continued absence of an inquest means that vital lessons which might prevent mistakes being repeated - and, therefore, more children dying are not being learned.

Until such time as the law is changed, we have to rely either on individual cases or official reviews and inquiries into circumstances where there appear to be a number of deaths occurring at the same hospitals.

Whilst they can uncover important details, it is critical that these investigations are thorough. In recent days, I've been speaking to one family Hayley and Adam Powsney, from Lancashire on whose behalf I have been working following the death of their son, Joshua, almost two years ago.

The Pennine Acute Hospitals NHS Trust did commission a review into deaths in maternity units which it manages, including one at the North Manchester General Hospital where Joshua Powsney was born.

However, the facts surrounding his death did not feature in the investigation, something which Hayley and Adam were understandably upset about. It took several months and multiple communications for the trust to acknowledge that Joshua's death ought to have been included and to apologise for this error. Adam and Hayley are now understandably concerned that there are other families who have been denied this opportunity.

I believe that positive steps are being made towards greater awareness of the causes and consequences of stillbirth. However, there is much more to be done to ensure that mothers, babies and wider society are given the care and support they need if we are to achieve the 2030 deadline.

One outcome of the conference was that it is clear that this is a major global issue. Truly significant strides cannot be made by researchers, lawyers and parents alone. We need the unconditional support of Government and the NHS to reduce the headache and heartache of stillbirth.

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Eddie Jones is a Partner and Head of Department located in Manchesterin our Clinical Negligence department

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