The Midwife Crisis: Why the UK is in need of EU workers as NHS feels the strain

We’ve written on this blog before about the unprecedented pressure that is being placed upon NHS workers, and how EU migrants in particular are helping to bridge the gaps in those services and help give invaluable support during these turbulent times. This week, we’re discussing the midwifery profession, as new figures and trade bodies have thrown this topic of conversation back into the limelight.

Not only is there a huge amount of concern across the UK as more midwife units close and senior professionals retire to leave huge gaps in service provision, but Brexit has also had an impact. We’re here to tell you all about these developments and what they mean for EU medical professionals thinking of heading to the UK.

What’s in the news?

Following the aftermath of Brexit, it looked as though things may be about to get tougher for EU professionals wanting to enter the NHS. So recently, it was interesting to see reports of a coalition being created to ensure that standards of care are maintained as Britain exits the EU, particularly within the midwifery industry. The Cavendish Coalition of 29 leading health and social care organisations, including the Royal College of Midwives (RCM), are well aware of the gaps in the NHS system that are currently being plugged by EU workers.

Jon Skewes, Director for Policy, Employment Relations and Communications at the Royal College of Midwives, commented: “We must not underestimate the contribution made by our EU colleagues in the NHS. There will be a gaping hole in the NHS and our maternity services if a solution is not found that allows them to continue working and living here after the UK leaves the EU.

“There are many EU midwives working in the NHS across the UK. England is already 3,500 full-time midwives short of the number needed, and we could be facing staffing shortfalls in other UK countries due to many midwives approaching retirement age. It will be a disaster for our maternity services and for the care mothers and babies receive if we lose these midwives.”

Why is the midwifery profession under pressure?

Concerns over the staffing problems within the maternity profession have been mounting for some time. Towards the end of last year, a survey was conducted by the Royal College of Midwives (RCM) amongst the Heads of Midwifery across the UK. The results revealed that maternity unit closures, budget/training cuts and reduced services were among their major concerns.

The research was conducted off the back of beliefs within the RCM that maternity units were facing unprecedented challenges, given historically high birth-rates, increasingly complex births, and a serious shortage of midwives across the UK that has added more strain to the NHS.

With regard to the maternity unit closures, this concern is understandable considering that 32.8% of maternity units had to close temporarily in 2014 because they couldn’t cope with demand, and this increased to 41.5% in 2015. According to medical professionals, demand relates to the increasingly complex births and staffing levels that the units have to deal with.

The key findings of the survey were:

  • Over 96.9% of senior midwives in 2014 and 91.3% in 2015, claimed that their unit is dealing with more complex cases than the previous year
  • Over a quarter – 29.5% in 2014 and 29.6% in 2015 – said that they simply did not have enough midwives
  • A tenth of Heads of Midwifery reported that they had to reduce services in the last year, including fewer parent classes and less bereavement/breast-feeding support.
  • Over a third of those surveyed (35.8%) said the home birth service was restricted, up from just over a quarter (26.2%) in 2014.
  • 3% in 2015 disagreed or strongly disagreed with the statement ‘I am able to meet all the conflicting demands on my time at work’.

Aside from this, those surveyed were also concerned that maternity units were desperately undervalued. Some even reported having to provide additional midwifery services, but without any extra budget.

Cathy Warwick, Chief Executive of the Royal College of Midwives, commented: “Our maternity services are overworked, understaffed, underfunded and struggling to meet the demands being placed on them. This is deeply worrying for the quality of care women are receiving, and the safety of services.

“When services are operating at or beyond their capacity, safety is compromised and mistakes can, and almost certainly will be made, through no fault of the dedicated staff delivering the service. The Government is responsible for this and it is they who are letting down women, babies and their families, as well as the staff they purport to value. This is simply not acceptable.”

The Scottish report

Clearly, staffing and budget issues for midwives is a nationwide problem, but particularly in Scotland, where several other factors appear to be contributing to the shortage. Just last month, birth figures were released by National Records of Scotland showing an increase of 1.6% during the second quarter of 2016, when compared to the same period last year.

Gillian Smith, Director for Scotland at the Royal College of Midwives, commented: “Whilst this is a small increase it still means there is more pressure on Scotland’s maternity services, which are already starting to buckle.

“Scotland needs to be investing now to train and bring through more midwives to replace those that will be leaving. Births are also becoming more complex, needing more of midwives’ time and adding to the urgency of this situation.”

Adding more fuel to the fire, these figures were released as Nicola Sturgeon and the rest of the SNP came under fire from medical professionals, who declared the Scottish care industry to be ‘on its knees’. According to reports, Ms Sturgeon and her health minister, Shona Robison, have dealt with a number of widespread protests recently over the government’s attitude towards the NHS.

For one, Ms Sturgeon has repeatedly refused to review the expensive Scottish free prescription programme, despite public appeals, but it was also revealed that while Scotland spends a third of its budget on the NHS, a large proportion of that is spent on private companies. In fact, figures released at the end of August this year showed that the Scottish health service spent £25.3 million on agency nurses in 2014-15 alone.

Simon Barker, Chairman of the Scottish Consultants Committee of the British Medical Association, told the press: “At the moment we put in considerably less of our GDP than other countries of a similar size and wealth. It is unfair to say we will fund everything and not put the money in to do it. That puts massive pressure on the managers, on clinicians and nursing colleagues and allied health professional colleagues to basically magic things out of thin air.”

What does this mean for me?

If you’re in the medical industry, whether midwife, nurse or doctor, the NHS has never needed your expertise more. Although we are in uncertain times because of Brexit, there will be no changes to current laws for the next two years, so it’s the perfect time to discuss your options for finding more employment opportunities within the UK healthcare service.

If you’re thinking about joining the NHS and you’d like to know more, our dedicated legal professionals are always on hand to help you, so call us on 020 7381 8111, or via email at [email protected].

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