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Speaking at a conference on quality, patient safety, and clinical risk hosted by the State Claims Agency, Dr Sharon Sheehan said Irish maternity services overall have “good outcomes”. However, she commented that “almost every day, another media headline grabs the front pages and serves to terrify the expectant mothers and their families and also to terrify the staff who work in our maternity services”.
She said Ireland is not alone in this respect with similar media coverage in the UK, for example.
Dr Sheehan said perinatal deaths in Ireland are declining and maternal death rates are “among the very lowest in the developed world”.
During a Q&A session, she conceded that avenues such as social media have not been actively used to promote the positive side of Irish maternity services. She said the joint standing committee of the three Dublin maternity hospitals is examining ways of communicating “to get that story out there”.
Speaking to the Medical Independent (MI), Dr Sheehan said there is much data in the public domain on good outcomes, but “those stories don’t seem to make it into the media”.
“I do think the information is there and I think we could certainly engage better to make sure that the positive story is getting out,” she told MI. “I think the hospitals and the media could work together to come up with a strategy whereby there is a balance to the reporting.” She noted “very good” feedback about the maternity services featured during the first episode of the ongoing RTÉ TV series Keeping Ireland Alive: The Health Service in a Day.
Meanwhile, during her presentation Dr Sheehan underlined the importance of sending a “consistent, positive message (that) we are hiring and we do need more midwives and obstetricians, to be able to deliver women into the future”. She said this message has to come from hospitals, Hospital Groups, the HSE, the Department of Health, politicians, the media, and the public.
“Because over the past 12 months, we have had a series of mixed messages and certainly that has massively impacted on our recruitment, with many potential employees from overseas contacting, certainly our hospital, saying, ‘I understand you are not hiring anymore.’ So the messaging has to be consistent – we are recruiting.”
Dr Sheehan maintained maternity services are hugely understaffed. In Ireland, a consultant obstetrician is responsible for approximately 597 births per annum, as against 268 in Scotland. Additionally, the three Dublin maternity hospitals are operating at a 17 per cent deficit in midwifery staff, she said.
This is against the background of increasing patient complexity, which is profoundly challenging services. “We have seen an enormous rise in the numbers of women who present with obesity and who go on to develop gestational diabetes; also in the number of women who avail of assisted reproductive techniques; who present with co-morbidities; and also advanced maternal age,” she outlined.
Dr Sheehan emphasised that all 19 maternity units need to offer the same standard of care. “We have got to eliminate this postcode lottery that exists in terms of standards, whereby, at the moment, most of our 19 units in fact do not offer foetal anomaly screening, which in this day and age is completely unacceptable.”