Mums tell Farringdon women’s health conference: Medics need to better communicate risks around childbirth

Jane Plumb MBE founded the charity Group B Strep Support. Picture: Francesca Fazey

Jane Plumb MBE founded the charity Group B Strep Support. Picture: Francesca Fazey - Credit: Archant

Doctors need to communicate better about the risks associated with childbirth if women are to fully exercise their right to informed consent.

Some of the speakers answer questions at Thursday’s event. L to R: Prof Michael Keighley, president

Some of the speakers answer questions at Thursdays event. L to R: Prof Michael Keighley, president of MASIC charity; Zoe Picton-Howell, a legal academic who lost her son Adam Bojelian to sepsis in 2015; Jenny Tighe, who raises awareness of traumatic birth injuries following her own experience giving birth to her daughter; Suzanne White, medical negligence solicitor at Clerkenwell firm Leigh Day, who organised the event; and Tracy Brabin, MP for Batley and Spen. Picture: Francesca Fazey - Credit: Archant

That was the message from a group of doctors, lawyers, campaigners and mothers at a seminar on women’s rights in healthcare at Farringdon’s Goldsmiths’ Centre on Thursday.

Most natural births go smoothly and most medical professionals do their best to support their patients, the group heard.

But communication failures can result in women enduring procedures they do not want or understand.

“Women need to be informed about all the possible scenarios when they go into birth,” said Suzanne White, a medical negligence solicitor at Clerkenwell firm Leigh Day, who organised the seminar.

“Things can go wrong and they should be made aware of that.”

According to the UK’s Birth Trauma Association, more than 200,000 women in the UK live with some level of trauma from giving birth.

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The sensitivity of the context and the fact that people think childbirth is supposed to be a natural, easy and happy event, make traumatic birth injuries an isolating and embarrassing experience, say campaigners.

Susan Bewley, professor of Women’s Health at King's College London (foreground), was among the medic

Susan Bewley, professor of Womens Health at King's College London (foreground), was among the medical professionals and academics present at the seminar. Picture: Francesca Fazey - Credit: Archant

Physical damage to the mother can have lifelong impacts on their parenting, relationship and mental health.

Jenny Tighe, 46, was left in that position after she gave birth to her daughter nine years ago.

Despite having written an explicit birth plan that specified: “Do not cut me. Do not let me tear. Do not use forceps,” she says she was left unattended so long during labour that her situation became an emergency.

“My birth plan didn’t even come out of my bag,” she said. “No one asked to see it, or even discuss my options should I get into difficulty.”

The damage Jenny suffered during her 41-hour labour meant she now lives with both bladder and bowel incontinence. Her mental health has suffered terribly.

“What angered me was that I went through the very procedure I was desperate to avoid,” Jenny said.

Professor Michael Keighley is president of the MASIC charity, which works to reduce the incidence of birth injury and support new mothers who may be suffering in silence.

MASIC’s research shows more than one in 10 women suffer some degree of incontinence due to birth injuries.

Several midwives and doctors in the audience, however, cautioned against stoking fear about natural birth.

Susan Bewley, professor of women’s health at King’s College London, voiced concern that social anxieties around getting pregnant were increasing, despite medical improvements.

“Pregnancy is a perfectly natural physiological process and yet I sometimes worry our society is becoming toxic to it,” she told the Gazette.

But she added: “Before, it was left up to the doctor to decide what happened. Now the doctor really has to take on board what the woman wants.”

Other speakers called for better communication from doctors generally.

Jane Plumb MBE lost her second child to Group B Streptococcus (GBS), a bacterial infection that can be passed from mother to newborn.

GBS is the most common cause of life-threatening infection in new babies, yet many mothers aren’t made aware that they might be carriers.

“It is absurd that the first time a family learns about GBS is when their baby is fighting for his or her life,” she said.

There is a lot of pressure on doctors to judge what information their patients need to know.

But as Zoe Picton-Howell – another mother who lost her son Adam, who had cerebral palsy, in 2015 – pointed out, communication is part of the job of a medical professional.

“It’s not only the science, but the humanity side as well,” said Zoe.

Tracy Brabin, MP for Batley and Spen, also spoke at the event.

“What’s been made clear today is that when things go wrong, mums’ mental health is at risk and that’s a powerful outcome,” she said.

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