Baby dies in transfer after maternity unit cuts emergency care

The safety of low-tech maternity units is being questioned after an unborn baby died when her mother had to be transferred from one hospital to another. That was two days after the unit had switched from providing emergency treatment during childbirth to catering for only the most straightforward cases.

The safety of low-tech maternity units is being questioned after an unborn baby died when her mother had to be transferred from one hospital to another. That was two days after the unit had switched from providing emergency treatment during childbirth to catering for only the most straightforward cases.

Campaigners who had objected to the downgrading of the maternity department said the case highlighted the risks of units not providing emergency cover for women in labour. Andrea Harrison, 30, was told she would be able to give birth at the midwife-led unit at Bishop Auckland General Hospital in Co Durham although she suffered from an underactive thyroid and her unborn child had a high heart rate.

But within an hour of arriving at the unit on 6 May, staff told Mrs Harrison and her husband Dean, 29, to transfer to Darlington Hospital's more hi-tech department 12 miles away because the baby was in distress.

The couple had to drive to the second hospital in their own car because the Bishop Auckland unit could not provide an ambulance. Within half an hour of arriving at Darlington, doctors performed an emergency Caesarean section, but the baby girl, who they named Olivia, was already dead. Mrs Harrison, from Newton Aycliffe, Co Durham, said: "I had checked when I learned about the new unit that there would be no problem. Even though I have an underactive thyroid, they were very reassuring.

"We were told the unit was midwifery-led but we were not told the facilities were so basic. I wouldn't have gone there if I had known. There is no equipment there now." She added: "I believe that Olivia had been in distress all day and I should never have been told to go to Bishop Auckland.

"I am absolutely grief-stricken; I have lost a daughter I was so looking forward to having. My emotions are up and down every day. There are days when I feel so angry and there are days I cannot stop crying."

Mrs Dean and her husband, a bus driver, have two sons aged nine and three, both born at Darlington hospital. They said they were struggling to understand what had happened.

The Bishop Auckland unit was opened two weeks ago and has been hailed as a model for a new breed of maternity centres that offer less medical care during childbirth.

Health experts believe the units are perfectly able to cater for cases in which there are no complications, but some campaigners believe the lack of emergency equipment could put mothers and their unborn babies at risk. Betty Todd, former chairwoman for the South Durham and Weardale Community Health Council said they had campaigned against the downgrading of the Bishop Auckland unit.

"We objected because we feared this sort of thing might happen," she said. "They should go back to providing emergency cover at Bishop Auckland. The risks are too great."

A recent study in the journal of the Royal College of Midwives (RCM) found that up to 25 per cent of cases at midwife-led units had to be transferred due to complications.

Frances Day-Stirk, director of learning research at the RCM, said: "We believe midwife-led units offer a safe and comfortable environment for women who are having a normal childbirth.

"They are very cost-effective, and midwives are well trained to spot complications early and transfer people if necessary. What is important is that women are clear about the options being offered to them when they make a decision about where they are going to have their baby."

A post-mortem examination is being performed on Mrs Harrison's baby, and the local NHS Trust said it would investigate the case.

Laura Robson, director of nursing at the Co Durham and Darlington Acute Hospitals NHS Trust, said: "After the results of a post-mortem are available, a full clinical review will be done to help establish exactly what happened in this case.

"Our deepest sympathies are with the family, and we will keep them fully informed of the outcome of this."

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