Mothers and babies at risk at busy maternity units, hospital midwives say

Midwives say mothers and babies are being put at risk by unsafe staffing levels in hospitals around the country.
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Midwives say mothers and babies are being put at risk by unsafe staffing levels in hospitals around the country.

Understaffed maternity units in hospitals nationwide are putting mothers and babies' lives at risk, a group of midwives warns.

The New Zealand College of Midwives (NZCOM) backed the complaint and said "urgent action" was needed from the Ministry of Health.

A group of eight midwives raised serious concerns in an anonymous complaint to the Health and Disability Commissioner, which was transferred to the Ministry of Health.

New Zealand College of Midwives chief executive Karen Guilliland  says more midwives are needed in the nation's hospital ...
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New Zealand College of Midwives chief executive Karen Guilliland says more midwives are needed in the nation's hospital as "soon as humanly possible".

The group sent a copy of the 33-page complaint to Stuff, with a cover note saying: "There must be major change to the current mess or more babies and mothers will die".

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The group urged the commissioner to investigate cases, including a newborn who died after its birth in an unidentified "very busy delivery suite".

That night, only two midwives were present instead of the "minimum for safety" of four midwives. One of the midwives "felt she needed to stay on call during the night in question but was too exhausted", the complaint said.

The complaint referred to another case in which another baby died shortly after birth.

The mother had requested a caesarean repeatedly because she had experienced problems giving birth naturally in the past.

"Eventually a C-section was booked after the parents' repeated requests but that was then cancelled by the doctor, who admitted that he had not read [the mother]'s notes and was unaware of her medical history," the complaint said.

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Midwives working in almost all secondary and tertiary maternity hospitals were "in a state of very real crisis".

"Almost every DHB is understaffed and the midwife [staffing levels] grossly inadequate," the complaint said.

Midwives sent the complaint anonymously because they were scared of the repercussions.

"It is simply unacceptable for individual midwives to be too frightened to speak out lest they be ostracised, marginalised, or effectively dismissed from their employment," the complaint said.

NZCOM chief executive Karen Guilliland said the complaint mirrored the working conditions "of many of our hospital midwives".

"We need more midwifery staff in hospitals as soon as humanly possible."

Burnt out midwives went "above and beyond the call of duty" to keep mothers and babies safe but it was not sustainable.

Many had reached breaking point after raising concerns for years, she said.

In a written statement, Ministry of Health maternity adviser Bronwen Pelvin said the ministry would respond to the anonymous midwives directly.

The Ministry of Health was taking district health board (DHB) staffing issues "very seriously". 

"We are working closely with DHBs and other groups, such as the NZCOM and the Midwifery Council of New Zealand, to understand the complexity of why this is happening and what we can do to resolve it."

Health Workforce New Zealand, a unit within the ministry, had identified the DHB midwifery workforce issue as a priority. 

"We are committed to helping DHBs to resolve this problem and acknowledge the very important work of midwives in producing good outcomes for pregnant women and babies."

 - Stuff

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