Call for action to head off the shortage of midwives
An urgent review of the number of midwives in Northern Ireland must take place to avoid a future staff shortage, the Royal College of Midwives (RCM) has warned.
The call comes as a new report from the RCM published today says the rapidly ageing workforce and an increase in the number of births has sparked concerns.
One of the key findings of the RCM's annual State of Maternity Services Report is that Northern Ireland has seen a fall in the number of midwives aged under 50 and a rise in those aged over 50.
Compared with 2008, there has been a fall in the number of midwives in the NHS here who are younger than 50, but a 42% jump in midwives in their 50s and 60s.
It also shows that in the last three years the number of midwives in their 60s has almost doubled, from 35 to 66.
Compared to 2001, there are now 224 fewer midwives here aged under 50.
The number of babies born in the province rose last year, up 117 on 2013 to 24,394, and remains 11% higher than in 2001.
The RCM said although the midwives were experienced they were approaching retirement and action needed to be taken to ensure enough were trained quickly enough to avoid a sudden shortage developing.
The report also reveals that births to women in their 30s and 40s have grown by almost a third (31%) since 2000.
This means that women in their late 30s or older also now make up more than one in five births.
The RCM added that due to a rise in potentially complex cases, including older mothers and more obese pregnant women who often need more monitoring, it was vital the right number of midwives were trained.
Providing maternity care for women with low risk pregnancies has also resulted in a substantial number of women choosing to having midwife-led care during their pregnancies.
This, according to the RCM, combined with earlier transfers home from hospital of mothers and babies, had led to community midwifery services being "stretched to the limit" to provide high quality care to women and their families.
Breedagh Hughes, director for Northern Ireland at the RCM, said there was not currently a midwife shortage but one could develop if action was not taken.
"Once a shortage occurs, as in England, it takes years to recruit and train midwives to eradicate it. England's shortage has now lasted for a generation and we do not want to see that happen here," she said.
"The Executive must act to prevent this happening and undertake a review of maternity staffing as a matter of urgency.
"We have got to ensure that the service is able to meet the needs of women. We have rising numbers of older mothers and more obese pregnant women who often need more support.
"This means planning to have the right numbers of staff to meet their needs. That means getting the right numbers of midwives in place very soon."
The Department of Health said: "The department has not received a copy of the report and are therefore unable to comment."