I welcome the news today that Jeremy Hunt is proposing changes in the way baby deaths and injuries are to be investigated. Unbelievably, there are around 1,000 cases every year where a baby dies or is left with severe brain injury as a result of the circumstances of birth. That is almost three babies a day, and that is in the UK, not a third world country. With approximately 700,000 births in the UK every year, generally the NHS does a good job in most cases, but this figure is still far too high.
In proposals announced this week, Mr Hunt said that all unexplained cases of a baby dying or suffering serious injury at birth will be investigated independently by the Healthcare Safety Investigation Branch, set up earlier this year.
It is the word 'independently' that is key. Parents often have little faith in hospitals conducting their own internal investigations, and with good reason. Experience suggests they rarely ask the key questions and simply fob off the parents with comments such as "it is impossible to predict what might have happened." Hopefully, an independent investigation will not only provide parents with greater confidence in the investigation process but also lead to lessons being learnt, fewer mistakes, fewer claims, and more money made available to fund chronic staff shortages within the NHS. Tragic deaths such as Huw Stewart’s will then hopefully be avoided.
Looking in more depth at the figures announced by the MBRACE-UK group, led by teams at Oxford and Leicester Universities, it was announced that 180 babies died in 2015 because of mistakes by maternity staff and delivery delays. This is from a total of 225 full-term stillbirths and deaths during childbirth. In other words, 80 per cent of these cases could have been avoided with better care.
Mr Hunt is also expected to announce that coroners will be able to investigate full-term stillbirths, something they are currently unable to do. I will particularly welcome this move since I have handled several cases in the past where parents have wanted an inquest only to be told that because their child was stillborn as opposed to dying within the first day of life, they have been denied an inquest that may have given them much needed answers.