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Baby deaths at neonatal unit 'not down to staffing'

Inadequate staffing levels did not contribute to the deaths of three babies in a hospital neonatal unit, a report has found.

Concerns were raised earlier this year over the deaths of three babies at Wishaw General Hospital in North Lanarkshire between August 2013 and February 2014.

NHS Lanarkshire ordered an independent review on neonatal services at the hospital which included interviews with bereaved parents, hospital staff and management.

The report said the three babies were born prematurely and infection was a factor in each of the deaths, but they were not linked.

"In 2013 and 2014 there was no epidemic of infection," the report said.

"The infection control precautions and hygiene measures of the Wishaw General staff were of a high standard. Babies born very prematurely are at risk of developing infections, and sadly some of these do not survive.

"The three babies died in Wishaw General Hospital neonatal unit between August 2013 and February 2014 and infection was a contributory factor in all three.

"In the view of the review group, all three were managed to a high clinical standard, with close involvement of senior nurses and consultants."

Inspectors found that sickness absence during the reviewed period was "undoubtedly a significant pressure", with an average sickness absence of 11.56% between August 2013 to March 2014. There were further absences due to annual and study leave, the report said.

It concluded "there is no evidence that inadequate staffing contributed to the deaths of any of the three babies".

The report has made 23 recommendations including better management of staff leave and shift rotation, a review of sickness absence, and the possibility of creating a regional nurse bank to cover staffing at neonatal units across the west of Scotland.

The report authors added that the recommendations "are by no means exclusive to Wishaw General Hospital, which has demonstrated multiple strengths".

Health Secretary Alex Neil said his thoughts are with the families whose babies passed away.

"These are truly tragic circumstances and I want to thank the parents for the brave contribution they've made to this report," he said.

"I welcome the report itself, carried out independently and thoroughly, which highlights a highly professional and dedicated workforce, delivering high quality compassionate care.

"The review team concluded that all three babies were cared for to a high clinical standard, and that the neonatal unit met required staffing levels.

"The report is also clear that the infection control precautions and hygiene measures of staff were of a high quality.

"However, when it comes to the care of such precious and vulnerable babies we must always look at how we can improve the care that is offered.

"While NHS Lanarkshire is increasing numbers of staff, in line with recruitment happening across Scotland, we will do all we can to assist the board with solutions for staffing required related to sickness or leave - including through supporting the creation of specialist regional nurse banks.

"We are sharing the report with the management teams of every neonatal intensive care unit in Scotland so they too can learn any relevant lessons possible from it."

Rosemary Lyness, NHS Lanarkshire director of nursing and midwifery, said: "The review team has confirmed that good infection control practices are in place in the unit and that the nurse staffing establishment is in line with the national recommended levels and indeed exceeds the recommended nursing skill mix.

"We recognise, however, that there have been occasions of high activity which has coincided with high sickness levels and a number of vacancies, which has put the service under pressure.

"The recommendations within the report identify a number of areas which we will explore further to minimise the impact of peaks of activity."

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