New hospital will transform maternity and neonatal services in East End

WITH one of the highest birth rates in the country, maternity and neonatal wards in the East End face more challenges than most.

Last week, the Advertiser highlighted the acute problem when we revealed how Tower Hamlets resident Michaela Southworth had to be rushed 50 miles away to Luton and Dunstable Hospital after going into labour 16 weeks early, as there was no space at The Royal London Hospital.

But now a new neonatal unit at the revamped hospital – currently under construction alongside the existing Whitechapel Road site – is set to transform the way women in Tower Hamlets give birth.

Billed as one of the largest and most complex hospital redevelopments in the world, the estimated cost of the new hospital is �650 million.

The neonatal unit, which treats premature babies, and maternity ward will have undergone a radical overhaul by the time the new wards open in February 2012.

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Last year, the hospital witnessed 4,500 births, with 90 per cent of the mothers being resident in Tower Hamlets.

That figure is expected to grow to 5,261 by 2016 – significantly higher than the number of births projected for the rest of London.

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Midwives agree that the current facilities are outdated.

Unanimous in their praise for the new build, they say the spacious, calming and modern design will make a vast difference.

Denise McEneaney, consultant midwife at the Royal London, said: “This hospital wasn’t built for providing health care in the 21st century, but the new ward is lovely. There’s space.

“Environment has an important impact on keeping a labour and birth as normal as possible. If you’re anxious, your adrenaline goes up and that can interfere with the hormones that are in place to get your labour going.”

The impact of space and privacy during childbirth should not be underestimated. Average labour times at the much-lauded Barkantine Centre, in Westferry Road, on the Isle of Dogs, which has private rooms, are considerably lower than at The Royal London.

Ms McEneaney added: “En-suite facilities with partners able to stay will be a huge improvement.

“It’s difficult for women who have just given birth to see a man using the same loo.”

In the new hospital, the labour ward will have 31 single en-suite rooms, compared to just one at present. There will also be 30 more beds for mums who require longer stays.

Birthing pools – an increasingly popular choice – will become a regular feature, as rooms will be large enough to fit in the mobile apparatus.

The neonatal unit at the hospital where premature babies are sent will also be overhauled and is set to expand, in a bid to address some of the problems that units across the country are facing.

There will be 46 cots in the new ward, up from the 38 currently available, and seven en-suite rooms for parents will also be offered for the first time – which is highly unusual for London.

Jennifer Deeney, matron of neonatal services, said: “This is about family-centred care and making sure the babies, their mums and dads are one.”

The Royal London’s neonatal unit is one of five main services in the capital, meaning babies needing the most intensive care come here from all across London.

Childbirth in Tower Hamlets is challenged further by some of the medical needs of the communities that live here.

Comparatively high diabetes rates in the Bangladeshi population can have an impact on pregnancy and premature birth.

Doctor Michael Hird, neonatal paediatrician, said: “Maternal diabetes can have a significant impact on the health of the baby.

“But in the last decade, the care given to the diabetic population has improved and our statistics are extremely good. The number of babies we need to admit has diminished remarkably.”

Officially, babies born before 37 weeks are classed as premature.

Last year, 32 babies weighing less than 1lb 10oz were born in Tower Hamlets. A baby born at 24 weeks will spend at least 16 weeks on the ward.

Nurse-to-baby ratios vary depending on the care required, from two nurses to one baby in extreme cases, to one nurse to four babies.

Nationally, there is a shortage of neonatal nurses but The Royal London has not fared too badly.

Ms Deeney added: “We’ve got one of the lowest vacancy rates in the city. I think there’s an excitement around the new build.”

Despite the challenges around childbirth in Tower Hamlets, The Royal London enjoys a good record.

Mortality rates, including stillbirths and deaths under one week of age, are low at 1.7 per 1,000 births in 2008 compared to 5.4 nationally.

Dr Hird explained: “The technical equipment and the effort, skill and expertise are unchanged.

“But we’ll be moving that into an environment that provides infinitely better facilities for both staff and families.”

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