By Alexis Tulloch, a medical negligence lawyer at Irwin Mitchell

A NHS Maternity Disparities Taskforce has been set up  to examine why women and babies from ethnic minority communities and those from poor neighbourhoods have worse outcomes.

Recent reports have painted a worrying picture of the impact of deprivation and ethnicity on maternity care.  

Maternity care disparities 

Despite improvements overall in the rates of maternal deaths, stillbirths and neonatal deaths, there are considerable disparities, the  causes of which are still unknown. 

Maternal deaths amongst  black women are five times higher than for white woman, while women from Asian backgrounds are almost twice as likely to die in pregnancy or childbirth than white women. 

Further, stillbirth rates are significantly higher for women from black and Asian backgrounds than for mothers of white ethnicity and black women are 40 per cent more likely to miscarry than white women. 

Research has also demonstrated that babies of mothers living in deprived areas are at higher risk of stillbirths and neonatal deaths with Birmingham, where levels of social deprivation are high, having the highest rates of neonatal deaths and still births.

Shocking statistics highlight need for urgent action

The statistics are shocking and it is clearly vital that more is done to find out why mothers and babies from minority ethnic and social and economically deprived backgrounds are at higher risk of dying before, during and shortly after birth. This long-standing problem needs urgently addressing.

The NHS has now set up the Maternity Disparities Taskforce to explore inequalities in maternity care. It is tasked with identifying how the government can improve services for women from ethnic minority backgrounds and those living in deprived areas to help level up maternity care across the country.   

The taskforce is led by Maria Caufield, Minister for Patient Safety and Primary Care and is co-chaired by Chief Midwifery Officer, Jacqueline Dunkley-Bent.  

Maria Caufield has said that “for too long disparities have persisted which mean woman living in deprived areas or from ethnic  backgrounds are less likely to grow the care they need and, worse, lose their child. We must do better to understand and address the cause of this."

Taskforce's focus

The Taskforce will meet every two months and focus on:-

  • Improving personalised care and support plans
  • Assessing the wider societal issues which affect maternal health
  • Improving education and awareness of health when trying to conceive
  • Increasing access to maternity care for all woman and developing targeted support for those from the most vulnerable groups
  • Empowering woman to make evidence based decisions

RCOG welcomes development

Dr Edward Morris, President of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, has welcomed the taskforce saying “the colour of someone’s skin should  never dictate whether they have a positive or negative birth experience. The RCOG’s Race Equality Taskforce is committed to working with this new taskforce to understand why these disparities exist and create meaningful solutions to improve healthcare experiences and outcomes for all ethnic minority women.”

Tommy's maternity toolkit

An example of how more personalised care can reduce health inequalities is a new digital tool developed by Tommy’s National Centre for Maternity Improvements, led by the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists and the Royal College of Midwives. 

The tool uses an algorithm to assess a woman’s personal risk, can detect high risk women more accurately and can identify complications in pregnancy.  Some 20,000 pregnant women have been involved and death rates in ethnic minorities were three times lower when the tool was used and there was no difference in baby death rates between ethnic groups.

Irwin Mitchell represents hundreds of families nationally who have been affected by issues in maternity care.  We're campaigning to improve maternity services across the country and have contributed to the Health Committee’s Maternity Safety Call for Evidence.

Find out more about our expertise in supporting families affected by baby loss or birth injury at our dedicated medical negligence section.