NHS leadership and the Government have ‘underestimated’ the impact racism has in worsening outcomes in maternity care, the Women and Equalities Committee has suggested.
The maternity workforce must now be better equipped to recognise the disparities that exist in their services and delivery of care, the MP committee said in its major report into Black maternal health published today (18 April).
Black women in the UK are 3.7 times more like to die from childbirth than white women, while women in the most deprived areas 2.5 times more likely to die than those in the least deprived areas.
In their new report, MPs warned that the causes of the ‘appalling disparity in maternal deaths’ are ‘still not fully understood’, but that it was concerned ‘that the Government and NHS leadership have underestimated the extent to which racism plays a role’.
The Committee called on Health Education England to lead a review into ensuring professional development requirements for maternity staff include evidence-based learning on health disparities, their causes, and how to deliver evidence-led care.
The report also highlighted the work being undertaken by the Nursing and Midwifery Council alongside NHS England to ‘discuss promoting and embedding anti-racism in professional practice.’
MPs also warned that staff shortages across maternity services has meant it is ‘simply not possible’ to safely implement continuity of care – a cornerstone of the NHS’ commitment to delivering safe maternal services for all women.
NHS Providers chief executive Sir Julian Hartley said that the ‘Disparities in maternal deaths are unacceptable, especially when NHS births are among the safest in the world. The NHS can, and must, do better.’
Sir Hartley added that ‘The government’s Maternity Disparities Taskforce, due to meet today, is a chance for renewed commitment to ensuring trusts and their staff have the investment they need to make much quicker progress on addressing maternal inequalities.’
They urged the Government to commit to increasing the annual budget for maternity services to £200–350 million from the next financial year – a move first called for by Jeremy Hunt in 2021 in his role as former chair of the committee.
The report also criticised the Government and NHS’ current measures to address the disparities in maternal deaths between Black women and white women and by deprivation, claiming they are ‘necessary but insufficient’.
They called on the Government to set a cross-government target and strategy – led by the DHSC – to eliminate the disparity which it said would keep the issue firmly on the health agenda.
Caroline Nokes, MP and chair of the Committee, said: ‘One of our biggest concerns is staffing shortages in maternity care. We need to see a sustained uplift in funding to bolster a workforce that has been stretched to its limits. We are also afraid the Government and NHS have not fully grasped that racism has played a key part in the complex reasons underlying the disparities, and that eradicating it is part of the solution.’
She also said: ‘Government must be more ambitious and set a national target to end disparities. It is frankly shameful that we have known about these disparities for at least twenty years. It cannot take another twenty to resolve.’
A version of this article first appeared in our sister paper Healthcare Leader