Maternity wards closure crisis

Maternity wards in England are shutting their doors a total of more than 1,000 times a year forcing expecting mothers to seek care elsewhere or give birth at home, according to new figures.
Maternity wards closure crisisUnits in some trusts are closing every other day as staff shortages and a lack of available beds prevent them from admitting new patients.

With wards closing for periods of up to three days at a time, data obtained by The Telegraph suggests more than 1,700 women have been turned away over the past two years.

Patients who went into labour faced the daunting decision of travelling up to 65 miles to the nearest ward with an available bed, or giving birth at home.

In most cases a lack of beds or “capacity” was cited as the reason for closures, which typically lasted several hours at a time and sometimes saw wards shut for several days.

Shortages of midwives, consultants, anaesthetists and other medical staff were the other major cause for turning women away as staff decided it would be unsafe to admit new patients.

Maternity wards are facing growing pressure because of a shortage of midwives and the increasing birth rate, which rose to 688,000 live births in England in 2011 — the highest total since 1971.

The Royal College of Midwives (RCM) warned in a report earlier this year that another 5,000 midwives are needed to deal with the rising number of births, which in some areas has increased by 50 per cent in recent years.

The report, presented to Parliament in January, warned that maternity wards are at a “tipping point” and that antenatal care too has become “threadbare” as midwife recruitment fails to match birth rates.

The new figures, obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, show that 66 NHS Trusts closed their doors at least 1,795 times in 2011 and 2012, with some returning figures for only part of that period. Some 40 trusts did not close at all.

When the 34 trusts with maternity units who did not answer the Telegraph’s request are taken into account, the figures suggest that at least 2,370 closures took place during the past two years.

Trusts reported a total of 1,309 women being directed to other units, equating to 1,728 across the country, but with many not keeping records of numbers being turned away the real figure is likely to be substantially higher.

The data are likely to embarrass the Conservative Party, which repeatedly attacked the previous Labour government for maternity unit closures while it was last in opposition.

Information published by the Tories in 2008 revealed that ten per cent of trusts had shut their doors on at least ten days during the previous year — but the new figures suggest that number rose to an average of 17 per cent over the past two years.

The Telegraph reported in October that there were recent or planned changes to close or downgrade consultant-led maternity wards at 18 hospitals, accounting for about one in nine departments in the country.

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