Maternity Ward Bed Shortages Plague U.K.

Published October 9, 2009

Scores of women are giving birth outside of maternity wards in the United Kingdom because the government-run system lacks beds and midwives.

U.K. health officials admit to the lack of accommodations for expectant mothers, as reports show close to 4,000 births took place outside of hospitals last year, a 15 percent rise since 2007.

The National Health Service (NHS) is in charge of hiring the nation’s midwives and has promised to hire another 3,400 in the near future, but officials at the Royal College of Midwives say at least 5,000 more hires need to be made in order to provide patients with quality care.

According to U.K. Conservative Party member and Shadow Secretary of State for Health Andrew Lansley, since 1997 the number of NHS maternity beds has been cut by 2,340, or 22 percent, while birth rates have continued to rise.

Twila Brase, president of the Citizens’ Council on Health Care in St. Paul, Minnesota, says this is a prime example of the problems that occur when health care is managed by the government.

“This example shows the dangers of bureaucratic, impersonal, government health care,” said Brase. “Every mom and every baby has maternity ‘coverage’ in the NHS, but actual care is hard to find. If there is no care when you need it, what good is it to be covered? When it comes to health care, government systems promise much and deliver little.”

Rationing Concerns

Paul Gessing, president of the Rio Grande Foundation in New Mexico, says the maternity ward crisis in the U.K. is a testament to why a market structure works best in giving patients access to care.

“Most rational people would argue that a midwife, at minimum, should be present at the birth of a child, but Britain’s NHS has other priorities,” said Gessing. “This is the essence of how free-market distribution of resources works better than even the highest-minded distribution on the part of government bureaucrats.”

Rationing has become a hot-button issue in the health care reform debate. Although the U.K.’s maternity ward problem may not be an intentional case of rationing, and instead just a miscalculation, Brase says it provides important lessons.

“Rationing of health care comes in all sorts of forms and flavors,” said Brase. “The bureaucrats at the NHS know women are being forced to deliver babies outside of hospitals, yet they refuse to increase access to care. Socialized medicine is bureaucrat-centered medicine, not patient-centered medicine. A health care system that knowingly puts mothers and babies at risk is a system that does not care for mothers and babies.”

Aricka Flowers ([email protected]) writes from Chicago.