The UK’s midwifery workforce is “ageing fast” and “swift action” is required to ensure there are enough staff to fill the gaps left by those retiring in the coming years, a union has warned in a new report.
In its annual analysis of maternity services staffing, the Royal College of Midwives found at least a third of NHS midwifery professionals in all four UK countries were now above the age of 50.
“The midwifery profession is ageing fast, just as the demands on it are growing”
This comes at a time when the number of women having babies at an older age – who are likely to require complex care from experienced staff, is increasing – said the report.
Obesity rates are also a concern, with around 20% of pregnant women in England and Scotland being obese, it said.
The increasing demand for services in combination with the ageing workforce means that more students need to be trained “as a matter of urgency”, said the report.
“If we wait, there will not be enough time for us to train new midwives and get them into the service so they can gain the experience and confidence they need before their more senior, more experienced colleagues retire,” added the RCM in its State of Maternity Services Report 2016.
“The midwifery profession is ageing fast, just as the demands on it are growing. We are standing on a cliff edge and need swift action now,” it said.
In England, 33% of midwives were in their fifties and sixties in July 2016, while the growth in the size of the workforce had stalled in recent years.
“When England is commissioning training places for around 2,500 student midwives each year, it is a problem if the workforce is increasing by only around 100”
In the 12 months to September 2016 the NHS midwifery workforce in England rose by just 104 posts.
The RCM noted this meant the midwifery workforce of an average maternity unit was growing at the “pitiful rate” of around one extra midwife every two years.
“When England is commissioning training places for around 2,500 student midwives each year, it is a problem if the workforce is increasing by only around 100,” said the RCM.
It added that the effect of student bursaries being removed from autumn 2017 was currently unknown.
The union also reiterated its prediction that England was short of 3,500 midwives, and warned this could be an underestimate due to the growing complexity of a typical midwife’s workload. It called for “decisive action” to increase the number of midwives in the NHS in England.
Meanwhile, in Scotland 41% of NHS midwives and maternity care assistants are over the aged of 50. The number of midwife training places has fluctuated in the past but stood at 178 in 2015-16, its highest level for five years, said the RCM.
“Wales has maintained a steady number of training places for students but that is no longer appropriate”
It said the increases in training numbers were “very welcome” and “may” help to tackle the age profile problem in the coming years, but that vigilance was required.
A total of 35% of midwives in Wales were aged 50 or more in March 2016. The union also welcomed recent increases in the size of the midwifery workforce but said analysis by health boards had shown more staff were needed..
“Wales has maintained a steady number of training places for students but that is no longer appropriate and we urge the Welsh government to increase the numbers as a priority,” said the RCM.
In Northern Ireland, 40% of NHS midwives are over the age of 50, with half of this group being above the age of 55.
“This is a challenge that we can see approaching. More work needs to be done to tackle it before it becomes even more urgent,” said the report.
Professor Cathy Warwick
While the number of student training places had been very stable in recent years, the report said the increasing age of the workforce meant there was a “clear need to ensure that a large number of newly-qualified midwives are entering the profession in the near future”.
Professor Cathy Warwick, chief executive of the RCM, said: “Unfortunately, again this year one of the top reoccurring issues across the UK is our ageing midwifery workforce.
“Right across the UK we are not seeing enough midwives being taken on,” she said. “Older midwives will be lost to retirement soon and with this we lose their experience and their ability to train and guide younger midwives.”
“This situation cannot be ignored any longer, if we wait, there will not be enough time for us to train new midwives and get them into the service,” she added.