Warning Over Welsh Neonatal Services

Special care baby units across Wales are near breaking point, a report will say today. A lack of funding has left units struggling to reach minimum staffing levels in the last year, according to the baby charity Bliss.

Many have been forced to refuse new admissions for considerable periods of time and mothers and their sick newborn babies may have to travel long distances in search of a unit with the appropriate facilities to care for them, the charity said.

Bliss’s new study Too little too late – are we ensuring the best start for babies born too soon? said Wales lagged behind England when babies have to be transferred between units, both within Wales and across the border.

The report found that Wales has no dedicated transport teams to accompany sick babies when they are transferred between units.

It said, “Wales has an underdeveloped transport system which functions on informal, ad hoc arrangements.

“Whereas the development of neonatal networks and investment from the Department of Health has resulted in improvements across the board in neonatal care in England, the picture in Wales is bleaker. The pace of change has not matched that in the rest of the UK and clinical networks have not been introduced.

“Without dedicated transport teams, units are deprived of their staff while the transfer is taking place. To add to this, there are frequently difficulties over ambulance provision, as there is no special arrangement for the transport of premature and sick babies.”

The findings of the study were based on surveys of 195 neonatal units across the UK.

It found that units were forced to refuse new admissions for an average total of two weeks out of a six-month period.

The study also found most units were operating above the 70% average occupancy level recommended by experts. One in eight of the most specialist units operated at an average occupancy of 100% or more for a whole year.

Over half of those were also operating at or below 50% of the minimum staffing levels. Although some new nurses have been recruited, the service is still 2,600 nurses short of the recommended number, the study said.

British Association of Perinatal Medicine recommendations state there should be one nurse to each baby in intensive care units.

In high dependency care, there should be at least one nurse to every two babies and, in special care, there should be at least one nurse to every four babies.

Andy Cole, chief executive of Bliss, said, “Bliss is concerned that the Government still gives less priority to intensive care for babies than for adults and children, even though all the evidence points to a neonatal service that is on the brink of collapse.”

The report said demand for care was outstripping supply and the care and safety of babies was in danger of being compromised.

A Welsh Assembly Government spokesman said, “We are aware of the concerns raised in the report and work is well under way to improve the situation.

“We are committed to developing standards to improve care for babies and their families. To support this, we have set up a project to develop service specific standards for children’s specialised services in Wales and enable equity of access for all children in Wales requiring specialised services through effective managed clinical networks.”