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One Born Every Minute is the opium of the masses

Like millions of others, I love Channel 4’s maternity documentary. But it is feeding us an overly rosy view of an NHS suffering from staff shortages and cutbacks.

Some of the midwives and patients from the fifth series of One Born Every Minute. Photo: Phil Fisk
Some of the midwives and patients from the fifth series of One Born Every Minute. Photo: Phil Fisk

OK, OK, so we all know that Made in Chelsea and The Only Way is Essex aren’t actually depicting the reality of life in Chelsea or Essex, but there’s something about medical reality TV programmes that somehow makes you think what you’re seeing is real. Channel 4’s Bafta-winning documentary series One Born Every Minute (OBEM) has recently returned to our screens for a fifth series. While its popularity is partly rooted in a certain voyeurism, many women (myself included), have watched it in the run up to childbirth in the hope of learning something of what was to come. After all, it’s a documentary, and though edited, isn’t scripted or staged. The care is real. The cleanliness, the calm, the almost ideological commitment to the profession, are all a true reflection of what our maternity units are like. . . right?

Like millions of you, I’ve tuned in to watch the messy business of childbirth. I’ve watched aghast as devoted midwives stay on past their shift to see through the labour of a woman whom they were so attentive to, you’d be forgiven for thinking they were long-lost friends. In one episode, they actually were! In more precarious situations, hoards of impeccably timed, rigorously diligent and profoundly empathetic midwives work in perfect harmony to support women, as if they were mythical angels of midwifery. The rose-tinted atmosphere is heightened by personal narratives from the midwives, who often talk about their profession as a dream vocation. While I don’t doubt many midwives do enter the profession thanks to vocational aspirations, statistics also tell us that midwives are leaving the profession in droves, suggesting that “tea and cake interspaced by miraculous experiences” might not be an entirely accurate portrayal of what their working lives are like.

For me, OBEM was a window – or so I thought – into the type of care I could expect to receive on the NHS. I wish I could confirm that the series offers an accurate depiction of the type of care you can expect to receive as an expectant mother, because frankly, it is exactly the level of care women should be receiving. And for many health professionals, it is precisely the type of care they wish they could deliver. But both my personal experience and crucially a range of figures, suggest otherwise.

One can safely assume that the maternity wards that agree to be filmed are not those struggling with staff shortages or overcrowding problems, as many of our maternity wards currently are. But I’ve come to wonder whether OBEM doesn’t actually act as a sort of pacifying decoy where there might otherwise be mass indignation as to what is truly happening in our hospitals.

The programme has aired over a period during which NHS restructuring means many maternity units are being downgraded or even shut down because of staff shortages and overcrowding. According to a recent survey, new mothers describe maternity units as “severely understaffed “with “overworked staff” on postnatal wards in particular. More than half of birthing units are not meeting the staffing guidelines set out by the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists and a third of mums in labour are now being turned away from wards, a scene we have so far seen only once on the last season of OBEM! The Royal College of Midwives is campaigning for 5,000 more midwives to be recruited to meet growing demand and speaking last year its chief executive Cathy Warwick warned: “We are many thousands of midwives short of the number needed to deliver safe, high-quality care.”

In the series, we watch as consistently composed midwives with all the time in the world tend compassionately to labouring women in state-of-the-art facilities. And yet meanwhile, many of us experience a system in which overworked and over-stretched midwives struggle to meet requests beyond the barest essentials. And who can blame them when, unlike the midwives on OBEM who seem to enjoy endless tea breaks, the midwives who don’t make it onto our screens report that missing meal breaks and finishing shifts late is a daily occurrence. As one midwife confessed to me: “One Born Every Minute is about as similar to my experience of being a birth centre midwife as Green Wing is to working in a hospital.”

We have our own perceptions of the NHS, shaped by the images we see on our screens. In the case of OBEM, these images are embellished with stories of women’s struggles within a pristine and perfectly-oiled system. If our own experiences differ from the narrative, we assume it’s an anomaly, an exception – that we were simply “unlucky”.

The reality is that the NHS chief executive Sir David Nicholson says £20bn must be shaved from the budget by March 2015, much of which involves hospital closures or downgrading. This is something which many campaigners see as cost-cutting not, as is claimed, an attempt to provide a more efficient service. While we happily watch an army of midwives fawning over newborns in immaculate hospitals, the government is undertaking the biggest NHS restructuring in history, which massively impacts the levels of care women can expect to receive.

The Maternity Services Survey 2013, which examines the experiences of women in 137 NHS Trusts in England, found that “more women felt that they were treated with kindness and understanding and had confidence and trust in the staff caring for them during labour and birth” than during the last survey in 2010. But it also revealed some worrying findings.

Among them was the fact that almost one in five women feel their concerns during labour were not taken seriously. Of the 230 women who provided comments about their experiences of accessing care, only one comment was positive. Of the remaining comments, over 87 per cent referred to women’s negative view of their care.

The UK may well be one of the safest places in the world to give birth, but all is not well. It has one of the worst rates of stillbirth in the developed world, and according to a globally-renowned professor of maternal care, government restructuring is to blame. What’s more, despite the majority of maternal deaths happening post-birth, budget pressures mean that almost half of new mothers are not immediately made aware of how to spot life-threatening conditions. And although the government has pledged that women can expect consistent care from a single midwife during labour, 46 per cent say they do not receive this.

OBEM has shone much-needed light on the experiences of women in labour, but the programme’s rosy depiction of our maternity wards shields us from the gruesome reality of what’s actually happening to them. If we were privy to the strains being placed on our wards, we might just be spurred into action. While the NHS is in need of profound change to render it more sustainable, care for women and babies at the very start of life should be shielded from cuts. Let’s not confuse the care we wish we had with the care we actually have and in so doing, end up lulled into a false sense of security. In the age of progress, we often assume things can only get better. The truth is, programmes like OBEM depict how it should be. Sadly, for many of us, that won’t be the reality.