In November 2017, the Health Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, announced plans for a new maternity strategy aimed at reducing the number of stillbirths in the UK. A key part of this plan is offering an independent investigation to families who suffer a stillbirth or life changing birth injury to their child to find out what went wrong. This is intended to help identify if mistakes were made before, during or immediately after the birth.
There have long been calls for it to be made a legal requirement for the deaths of stillborn babies to be referred to coroners. While some coroners do request that they be informed of all stillbirths, this was not enforceable or universally the case. With the UK having one of the worst rates of still birth in the western world (currently 4.5 per 1000 births) being able to investigate the circumstances surrounding these deaths is essential to help identify where mistakes are being made and improve birth safety.
The Chief Coroner, Judge Mark Lucraft QC, had previously highlighted the issue that doctors are not legally required to report deaths to a coroner in his 2017 annual report to the Lord Chancellor. This means that opportunities are potentially being missed to learn from mistakes that were made by medical staff during a pregnancy or birth that resulted in the baby’s death.
Under the new plans, any family who experiences a stillbirth, early neonatal death or severe brain injury will be referred to the new Healthcare Safety Investigation Branch, who will look into the circumstances surrounding the death or injury. Additionally, full-term stillbirths will now routinely be investigated by coroners.
The aim of this new strategy is to ensure that where mistakes are being made in the care pregnant women and their babies receive before, during and after a birth, the reasons are identified so lessons can be learned.
Mr Hunt said: “Countless mothers and fathers who have suffered like this say that the most important outcome for them is making sure lessons are learnt so that no-one else has to endure the same heartbreak. These important changes will help us to make that promise in the future.”
The Department of Health and Social Care also announced that it is bringing forward the date by which it intends to halve rates of stillbirths, neonatal and maternal deaths, and brain injuries occurring during or soon after birth from 2030 to 2025.
It has to be hoped that, by standardising practices around referring stillbirths to coroners and giving families the option to have their child’s death or birth injury independently investigated, the number of stillbirths and birth injuries can be dramatically decreased while giving families some degree of comfort and closure.
These changes to how stillbirths and birth injuries are handled should also make is easier for families to claim compensation where appropriate by making it faster and easier to identify where medical mistakes were to blame for what happened. This should be of particular relevance to parents whose child has been left with a serious birth injury as compensation can make a significant difference to their child’s ability to live an independent, happy and fulfilling life.