A day in the life of a human rights centred midwife

Today started as many of my days do with me going straight into a meeting, no time to grab a drink or check my emails. The meeting was discussing how we improve services for women accessing early pregnancy and gynaecology. By redesigning our estate we can improve the journey for these women. How does that relate to their human rights? Well, ensuring women are cared for in an area that’s private and appropriately staffed with skilled nurses and medical staff means women that are suffering a miscarriage or early complications in pregnancy are appropriately cared for and supported. Midwives working in a hospital setting often don’t have any dealings with women below 20 weeks so its important that I make sure that the way in which these women are cared for compliments the midwifery care they receive and promotes the ethos of women centred care. If the care we give is based on the needs and wishes of individual women then we are will be meeting their human rights.

Walking round the maternity unit I meet one of our new consultant midwives who talks to me about a women she has been caring for. This woman is very keen to have a vaginal birth but is being discouraged by some of the medical staff who have concerns about her risks. Midwives and obstetricians have an obligation to talk to woman about any risk factors they may have. Unfortunately every doctor this woman has met has felt the need to reiterate this woman’s risks factors. As she clearly states “ I know the risks, I’ve been told them, I’ve researched them, I just want the best chance to have a good birth experience”. The skill to being a woman centred midwife or doctor is to speak to women on an equal footing. To remove the power dynamic that is so often present in the relationship between health professionals and those they care for is one of the fundamental steps in building a trusting relationship. Trust is, I feel, one of the building blocks of a human rights based relationship with those we care for.

I meet a young woman who has recently given birth to her 1st child but is still here 6 days later. The baby has been under the care of the neonatologists. This intelligent woman has become a mother and has experienced first hand how the “just in case” approach and “doctor knows best” has led her to stay in hospital all this time. She’s a health professional and the work part of her has made her question the doctors, she doesn’t feel the treatment and the investigations her baby has had were necessary, but now she’s a mum and the very rational, logical, evidence based approach she uses every day at work has becoming clouded by the emotions that come with being a mother combined with all the changes taking place in her body following birth. We talk through how she feels, she comments on how the care she received was great until the baby was born and then it all “got out of control”. She has been told she can go home today so we agree that she will write to me, detailing her experiences as a mum and as a health professional. I can then use that to help me challenge some of the policies, procedures and behaviours that exist in the organisation that don’t support a culture of respecting the human rights of mothers and baby’s.

My afternoon is spent trying to support the managers in staffing the unit safely, rewriting a job advert for midwives focussing on attracting candidates that believe in women centred care and the role the midwife plays in facilitating choice and helping women and their families to have a positive birth experience. I then respond to a complaint from a woman who feels she wasn’t listened to when she was in pain, didn’t have her wishes respected or her beliefs.

All of the above makes my day sound pretty depressing but actually its full of positive stuff. I see midwives and doctors supporting women, being kind, communicating well and appropriately. I see staff members supporting each other with guidance and tips on how to manage particular situations and I see many, many happy faces of women, their partners and their families who have recently met the latest arrival to their family.

I haven’t laid a hand on a pregnant woman’s abdomen, or caught a baby as its mother pushes it out or helped a new dad figure out how to put a nappy on his new child. That doesn’t make me any less of midwife nor does it mean I’ve not been able to act in a way that promotes the human rights of childbearing women.

What makes a “human rights centred midwife’?

Kindness, compassion, consideration, respect, honesty and a fundamental belief in a woman’s right to choice.

You know what’s interesting? You could take out “human rights centred” because these are all the qualities that make a great midwife and having spent 22 years working in maternity services the overwhelming majority of midwives I have met have all those qualities. Unfortunately sometimes the services they work in, the culture of the organisation in which they are employed doesn’t support them in demonstrating all these qualities. Fear of litigation, of not following guidelines or off being labelled a “maverick” midwife by supporting choices women make that might not be the norm make some midwives act towards women in a way that they don’t fell comfortable with. This makes some midwives move on, some leave the profession all together and some give in, become part of the culture.

My words of wisdom…..

Be brave, be strong…….be a midwife…..

Simon Mehigan is Deputy Director of Midwifery at Chelsea and Westminster Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, and a Trustee of Birthrights. This blog post was first published as part of the Growing Families Conference blog series.

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