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Women's safety alerts in maternity care: is speaking up enough?


Patients’ contributions to safety include speaking up about their perceptions of being at risk. Previous studies have found that dismissive responses from staff discouraged patients from speaking up. A Care Quality Commission investigation of a maternity service where serious incidents occurred found evidence that women had routinely been ignored and left alone in labour. Women using antenatal services hesitated to raise concerns that they felt staff might consider irrelevant.

The Birthplace in England programme, which investigated the quality and safety of different places of birth for ‘low-risk’ women, included a qualitative organisational case study in four NHS Trusts. The authors collected documentary, observational and interview data from March to December 2010 including interviews with 58 postnatal women. A framework approach was combined with inductive analysis using NVivo8 software.

Speaking up, defined as insistent and vehement communication when faced with failure by staff to listen and respond, was an unexpected finding mentioned in half the women's interviews. Fourteen women reported raising alerts about safety issues they felt to be urgent. The presence of a partner or relative was a facilitating factor for speaking up. Several women described distress and harm that ensued from staff failing to listen.

Women are speaking up, but this is not enough: organisation-focused efforts are required to improve staff response. Further research is needed in maternity services and in acute and general healthcare on the effectiveness of safety-promoting interventions, including real-time patient feedback, patient toolkits and patient-activated rapid response calls.

  • Patient safety
  • Obstetrics and gynecology
  • Patient-centred care
  • Adverse events, epidemiology and detection
  • Communication

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