Racism's role in disparity in maternal deaths may be 'underestimated', MPs warn

MPs were told that one of the biggest concerns that the Women and Equalities Committee found related to staffing shortages on maternity wards, as ITV News' Stacey Foster reports

The role of racism in the "appalling" disparity in maternal deaths may have been underestimated by the government and NHS, MPs have warned.

To counter the problem the Women and Equalities Committee a target is needed for eliminating the disparity between black and other minority ethnic women and white women, and the related gap between those living in the most and least deprived areas.

Research has previously found that black women are almost four times more likely to die in pregnancy, childbirth and the period afterwards than white women.

The 2022 MBRRACE-UK annual report concluded there was a more than three-fold difference in maternal mortality rates, with black women 3.7 times more likely to die than white women and Asian women 1.8 times more likely to die than white women.

The chronic understaffing and underfunding in midwifery was adding to the problem, according to the report. Credit: PA

It also found that the maternal mortality rate among women who live in the most deprived areas is increasing.

In its report published on Tuesday, the committee said the causes of the "appalling disparity in maternal deaths are multiple, complex and still not fully understood."

The committee said: "Fixating on any one cause risks over-simplifying the problem and placing blame on the very women who are most at risk.

"Too many black women have experienced treatment that falls short of acceptable standards, and we are concerned that the government and NHS leadership have underestimated the extent to which racism plays a role.

"The maternity workforce must be properly equipped to understand and recognise the significant disparities that exist, and to use that knowledge to deliver personalised, effective and respectful care."

Among their recommendations, the MPs called for Health Education England to lead a coordinated review into midwifery to ensure training "includes evidence-based learning on maternal health disparities, its possible causes and how to deliver culturally competent, personalised and evidence-led care."

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The committee also called for "continuity of carer" for patients – something it said is currently difficult "due to the considerable staffing shortages across maternity services".

The government has put forward "necessary but insufficient" solutions to tackle the problem of the disparity in maternal deaths, the committee said.

The report also said better data is as it noted that black women are "regularly underrepresented in research or data and therefore in policymaking" and that ethnicity data held by trusts is "incomplete or inaccurate".

Committee chair Caroline Nokes described the disparities with deaths among black women as “shocking” and said while the "tireless work of campaigners" has ensured more attention has been paid to this in recent years "improvements are not happening quickly enough."

She said: "One of our biggest concerns is staffing shortages in maternity care. We need to see a sustained uplift in funding to bolster a workforce that has been stretched to its limits."

A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said: "While the NHS is already one of the safest places to give birth in the world, we are absolutely clear that we must ensure maternity care is of the same high standard, regardless of race.

"We’ve invested £165 million since 2021 to grow the maternity workforce and are promoting careers in midwifery with an extra 3,650 training places per year, while every local NHS maternity system has a plan in place to tackle disparities on a local level."