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24 May 2022 | Comment | Article by Ruth Powell

Investigation conducted by Birthrights reveals racial injustice in maternity care


A year-long investigation conducted by Birthrights, a charity that champions respectful care during pregnancy and childbirth, has revealed the significant impact of racial injustice within maternity services.

A summary of the report, ‘Systemic Racism, not Broken Bodies’ can be found on the Birthrights website.

The investigation has identified several common themes, including:

  • a lack of physical and psychological safety
  • being ignored and disbelieved
  • racism by caregivers
  • dehumanisation
  • a lack of choice
  • consent and coercion
  • structural barriers, and
  • workplace representation and culture.

The inquiry heard from over 300 people with lived and professional experience of racial injustice in maternity care. In relation to patient safety, one case study highlights a failure to recognise jaundice in a Black baby and another demonstrates a failure to recognise symptoms of sepsis, in this case paleness and loss of colour in the skin, due to the patient being a Black woman. The case studies show instances of concerns being dismissed, resulting in a failure to give appropriate treatment, including pain relief.

The investigation highlights the presence of racial stereotypes, microaggressions and assumptions about risk based on race. The report states that healthcare professionals have described colleagues as having said that Black women and babies have “thick, tough skin” and that Chinese people are “dirty”. There were a number of accounts where women and staff heard Asian women being referred to as ‘princesses’ or ‘precious’ and Black women as ‘aggressive’ or ‘angry’.

This report serves as an important reminder that, where a patient is concerned, in relation to any aspect of their care, they have a right to complain. The healthcare system should be patient-focused and subject to careful review.

For those who have suffered injury or loss as a result of these failings, pursuing a clinical negligence claimfor compensation can help to ensure that they receive the necessary treatment and support. For those families who have suffered loss, the inquest process and pursuit of a clinical negligence claim provides an opportunity to obtain compensation and to ask questions. It also helps to ensure that steps are taken to promote change and prevent these failings from occurring again in the future.

If you have suffered injury or loss as a result of these failings, get in touch with our Medical Negligence team

The report identifies five universal calls to action to achieve racial equity in maternity care:

  1. To commit to being an anti-racist organisation
  2. To decolonise maternity curriculums and guidance
  3. To make Black and Brown women and birthing people decision-makers in their care and the wider maternity system
  4. To create safe, inclusive workforce cultures
  5. To dismantle structural barriers to racial equity through national policy change

The report provides clear steps for achieving these goals with a view to ensuring racial equity, dignity, choice and autonomy in maternity care. It is hoped that this investigation will prompt essential widespread review and change within the healthcare system.

Author bio

Ruth is a Partner and Head of our Clinical Negligence Department. She has exclusively practised in clinical negligence since qualifying in 1995 and has a wealth of experience in complex and high value clinical negligence claims.

Disclaimer: The information on the Hugh James website is for general information only and reflects the position at the date of publication. It does not constitute legal advice and should not be treated as such. If you would like to ensure the commentary reflects current legislation, case law or best practice, please contact the blog author.

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