Black Maternal Healthcare and Mortality Debate

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Department: Department of Health and Social Care

Black Maternal Healthcare and Mortality

Nadine Dorries Excerpts
Monday 19th April 2021

(3 years, 2 months ago)

Westminster Hall
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Nadine Dorries Portrait The Minister for Patient Safety, Suicide Prevention and Mental Health (Ms Nadine Dorries)
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I thank all Members of the House who have taken the time to attend and speak in today’s debate, and particularly the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell) for having secured the debate. Along with everyone else, I also thank the co-founders of the Five X More campaign, Clo and Tinuke, for their incredible work. Their petition to Parliament has generated a huge amount of interest and support, and their work to improve maternity mortality rates and healthcare outcomes for black British women is inspiring and brings this deeply important issue the attention it deserves.

Every woman deserves to have safe care, to feel that her voice has been heard and to be an informed decision maker in her own care. The NHS is one of the safest places in the world to have a baby. Few women in the UK die during childbirth. Between 2016 and 2018, 217 out of 2.2 million women died during, or up to six weeks after, pregnancy from causes associated with their pregnancy. That equates to 9.7 maternal deaths per 100,000 pregnancies. We also know from the MBRRACE-UK maternal mortality reports that some of these deaths could have been prevented. Sadly, evidence shows that, currently, there remains a more than fourfold difference between maternal mortality rates among women from black ethnic backgrounds and among white women in England. There also remains an almost twofold difference between women from Asian ethnic backgrounds and white women. Those disparities are worrying and must be addressed, and I have heard all of the calls to do that today.

However, let me address the points that have been raised by speakers today—many of which have been raised repeatedly—beginning with the right hon. and learned Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman). We need to fundamentally understand why this issue occurs and why we have these disparities. The statistics tell only part of the story: the lived experiences of black women need to be understood, appreciated and heard for us to really gain an understanding of the full picture. I think it was the hon. Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Kim Johnson) who read out some of the reasons for these disparities that are given in the report. As we know, and as we could tell from that report and from the list that she read, which was just the tip of the iceberg, the reasons are incredibly complex.

That is why, last month, I announced that the Government are embarking on the first women’s health strategy for England. That strategy is, first and foremost, about listening to women’s voices. The call for evidence that launched on International Women’s Day seeks to understand women’s experience of the health and care system, and we have already seen an incredible response to it. Many thousands of women across the country have come forward to share their experiences through the online survey, which takes just a few minutes to complete, so I will unashamedly make another call in this debate for any woman who has not yet completed the online survey to do so.

However, women from black and other ethnic minority groups are under-represented in the responses we have received so far, and today’s debate has reiterated just how important it is to ensure that the health and care system is listening to women of all backgrounds. I encourage any woman listening to this debate, and in particular women from black and ethnic minority groups, to come forward and have their voice heard. By better understanding women’s experiences, we can ensure that the health system truly meets the needs of women as they should be met. The complaint that women’s voices are not heard—that women are not listened to and are spoken down to in the healthcare sector—is a common one across the board from women, and was highlighted in Baroness Cumberlege’s recent “First Do No Harm” report.

Disparities in maternal mortality rates among women from different ethnic groups have been well documented for many years. The numbers are just not acceptable, and the Government are committed to reducing those inequalities. The charity Five X More has campaigned to make the NHS commit to a target to reduce inequalities and close the current gap in maternal mortalities. There are considerable limitations on producing an England-level indicator of maternal mortality by ethnicity. Many Members raised that point. The fact is that maternal deaths are rare, even among women from black ethnic groups. Because of the very low numbers, even a large reduction in mortality rates for a particular ethnic group would not necessarily be attributable to a genuine improvement in the quality of care.

Marsha De Cordova Portrait Marsha De Cordova
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The issue is that there is a need for a target. When a target is set, work can take place towards a reduction. The Minister says it might be difficult to record the figures by ethnicity. Could she explain why it would be difficult?

Nadine Dorries Portrait Ms Dorries
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I will go further and explain what we are hoping to do to make a difference. We know that for every woman who dies, 100 women have a severe pregnancy complication or a near miss. That has been mentioned a number of times. When that woman survives, she will often have long-term health problems. Disparities in the number of women experiencing a near miss also exist between women from different ethnic groups. Because near misses are more common than maternal deaths, we can investigate those disparities at local and regional level, to better understand the reasons for disparity, to assess local variation and to identify areas with less disparity and, hence, best practice.

Wera Hobhouse Portrait Wera Hobhouse
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Is it not clear from everything we hear that black women and women from ethnic minorities feel that the health system does not communicate appropriately, so they do not understand all the choices available to them? Is that not a way of getting to the bottom of what is going wrong?

Nadine Dorries Portrait Ms Dorries
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That is certainly one of the many issues highlighted in the report, but it is not the only one. We have commissioned the policy research unit in maternal and neonatal health and care at the University of Oxford to undertake research into the disparities in the near misses, and to develop an English maternal morbidity outcome indicator. The research will explore whether the indicator is sufficiently sensitive to detect whether the changes made to clinical care are resulting in better health outcomes. Five X More called for that in its list of 10 requests.

We are putting the research in. We have found a way to look at the research in order to make the differences that need to be made. We can do that by examining the near misses. What happened in those cases and in those women’s experiences? What went wrong? Do the women feel that they were not listened to? Was it a matter of treatment? Was it a lack of understanding? We need to understand that by looking at the near misses. The research is being undertaken, but it will take some time. Hopefully, when that is reported, we will be able to make progress on the issue of setting targets.

This Government are no strangers to setting targets. On the very sad issue of baby loss, we set a target to reduce neonatal stillbirth and neonatal mortality rates by 20% by 2020. We have reached almost 25%. We have smashed that target and are still pushing forward to improve that situation even more. We are not afraid of setting targets, but when we are setting them we have to know how to achieve better outcomes. The hon. Member for Battersea (Marsha De Cordova) mentioned continuity of carer. She is absolutely right about those figures. We know that continuity of carer works incredibly well, particularly for black women and women from ethnic minorities. Having the same midwife throughout the process of pregnancy makes a huge difference. That is being rolled out across the country. I am sure that the hon. Lady has spoken to the chief midwifery officer, who is a huge supporter of the policy. We are continuing to roll it out and make progress with it. It has been slightly more difficult during the 12 months of the covid pandemic, particularly because many trusts did not continue with home births.

We are not afraid of setting targets, however. Setting targets in maternity units is what we are about, to make them safer places in which to give birth and in order to reduce both neonatal and maternal mortality rates, but we need to do the research on the near misses, to understand what the problems are. We cannot set targets until we know what we are trying to achieve through those targets and what we need to address. Five X More has asked for that research to be done. It needs to be done, and it will be done.

We are committed to reducing inequalities and to improving outcomes for black women—we work at that daily. I established the maternity inequalities oversight forum to focus on inequalities so that we in Government understand what the problems are. The forum also brings together experts from across the UK—we have met MBRRACE-UK and Maternity Voices—who have done their own research and studied this problem, to hear their findings and recommendations. Professor Jacqueline Dunkley-Bent, the chief midwifery officer for England, is leading the work to understand why mortality rates are higher, to consider the evidence on reducing mortality rates, and to take action to improve the outcomes for mothers and their babies.

NHS England is working with a range of national partners, led by Jacqueline Dunkley-Bent and the national speciality adviser for obstetrics, to develop an equity strategy that will focus on black, Asian and mixed-race women and their babies, and on those living in the most deprived areas. The Cabinet Office Race Disparity Unit has also supported the Department of Health and Social Care in driving positive actions through a number of interventions on maternity mortality from an equalities perspective. The Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists has established—

Gary Streeter Portrait Sir Gary Streeter (in the Chair)
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Order. Will the Minister kindly leave two minutes for Catherine McKinnell at the very end?

Nadine Dorries Portrait Ms Dorries
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I will end there, but if any hon. Members wish to speak with me about the work we are doing and the research we have undertaken with Oxford University, we are happy to share more. I say in response to the hon. Member for Luton North (Sarah Owen) that very few personal meetings have taken place, but I would be happy to meet her and her constituent.

Gary Streeter Portrait Sir Gary Streeter (in the Chair)
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Thank you very much, Minister. It is very important that Catherine McKinnell has the final word.