THOUSANDS of new mothers are being discharged from hospitals in the middle of the night as a shortage of midwives leaves maternity care at “make or break point”, a Sunday Times investigation reveals.
Almost 33,000 women were sent home after giving birth between 11pm and 6am in the past three years, despite experts warning that discharging exhausted new mothers in the early hours puts them at risk.
Patients’ groups branded the figures “unacceptable”, and maternity workers urged the government to pump money into a service struggling to cope.
Katherine Murphy, chief executive of the Patients Association, said: “Being discharged in the middle of night is not appropriate under any circumstances, more so when women are feeling vulnerable after going through an exhausting delivery. This is unacceptable and put patients at risk.”
Figures obtained under freedom of information rules reveal that 12,335 new mothers were discharged between 11pm and 6am during 2013 — the equivalent of 34 women every night.
The data, revealed in responses from 81 of the 167 NHS health trusts in England and Wales, show a worsening situation, with the number of late-night discharges rising from 10,696 mothers in 2012 and 9,801 in 2011.
Mandi Riley, 26, was discharged from Liverpool Women’s Hospital late at night following difficulties during the birth of her daughter Jessica. She claimed she was left in tears after having to make her way home after 11pm on a cold, snowy night in 2009.
“I had quite a hard birth where my placenta had got stuck,” she said. “Jessica was born on a Sunday afternoon and I was discharged very late on a Tuesday night. It was 11pm. They didn’t come and ask me, they just told me I was going home.”
As she and her husband William did not drive, her sister picked them up. “It was snowing outside and really cold. I was absolutely terrified that we were going to crash or someone was going to crash into us,” she said.
Liverpool Women’s Hospital apologised if the patient had felt rushed to leave but insisted it is not “usual practice” to discharge women in the middle of the night.
Emma Pollard, 29, said delays meant she had been discharged from Basildon Hospital in Essex at midnight after giving birth to her son, Logan, in November 2012.
“I had a newborn baby and it was the first couple of weeks in winter, so it was freezing cold. It was also very dark, and no one was around,” said Pollard, who had wanted to go home earlier but faced delays as staff completed the necessary paperwork.
“If I had another baby, I would make them let me stay until the morning. I wouldn’t go home that late at night again,” she said.
Pollard had to return to the hospital 36 hours later after suffering an infection and was in hospital for almost a week. There is no suggestion that her infection was linked to her discharge.
Basildon Hospital said it was highly unusual for mothers to be discharged from the maternity unit between 10pm and 6am. A spokesman said: “There are occasions when mothers are keen to leave between these times, but we do not encourage it.”
The figures show that between 2011 and 2013, Nottingham University Hospitals NHS Trust discharged a total of 1,629 women between 11pm and 6pm.
Mid Yorkshire Hospitals NHS Trust sent home 1,547 new mothers and University Hospitals of Leicester NHS Trust discharged 1,512.
Louise Silverton, director of midwifery at the Royal College of Midwives (RCM), said the figures highlighted the need for more midwives and investment. “If mothers are happy to leave hospital during the night to the comfort of her own home, then there is no problem with that,” she said. “But there are not enough midwives, and not enough beds, and we are seeing some women going home before they are comfortable with the prospect of looking after their baby.”
The RCM said maternity care services had “reached a make or break point”.
Dr Dan Poulter, the maternity and child health minister, said new mothers should only be discharged if ready and following clinical consultation. “Some women who give birth to healthy babies often don’t need to remain in hospital, and many choose to return home soon after their delivery,” he said.
“However, this should only happen after a discussion with the clinician and if mother and baby are well enough.”
* This article was provided to the Sunday Times by OpenWorld News.