Midwives in some regions of England have workloads more than a third higher than hospital safety standards recommend, official figures suggest.
Regional midwife to birth ratios were revealed in figures released by nursing minister Anne Milton in response to a parliamentary question. They show in 2009 the ratio ranged from 28 births per midwife a year in the North East to 39 in East of England and South Central.
The regional figures are for all births, covering those in the community as well as hospitals.
The ratio of one midwife to every 39 births represents a workload more than a third higher than that recommended by the Safer Childbirth hospital births standards, compiled by four royal colleges, including the Royal College of Midwives and Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists. The standards recommend one midwife should have a workload of 28 births a year to “ensure one to one care in labour” in hospital births.
RCM deputy general secretary Louise Silverton told Nursing Times trusts with high birth to midwife ratios were not necessarily “unsafe, but in some areas you might want more back-up”.
She said the likely increased cost of litigation made reducing the number of midwives a false economy for trusts.
However Ms Milton’s figures showed there was a small improvement in the workload figures from 2008-09, with the average midwife to birth ratio for England dropping from 34.3 births to 33.2 per midwife.
Each of the 10 strategic health authorities recorded a fall, apart from NHS London whose ratio rose from 34 to 34.2.
RCM director for England Jacque Gerrard told Nursing Times: “We are cautiously encouraged by these figures. There seems to have been an improvement in the level of investment.
“Each of the SHAs increased its number of midwives last year apart from North West, and theirs was high anyway.”
She said it was not a surprise the London ratio had worsened as the region experienced problems recruiting and retaining midwives.
She added that although the number of births had fallen 0.3 per cent last year it had risen for seven years in a row previously.
East of England has an ongoing midwife recruitment drive and told Nursing Times it recruited 162 additional midwives between May and November last year.
NHS South Central associate director of maternity and newborn Suzanne Tyler said the SHA’s average had come down to 36 births per midwife in 2010. The SHA is looking at options to increase its workforce including overseas recruitment and encouraging midwives to move from areas of oversupply to undersupply.