Southend mums face urgent hospital trips after re-designation of birthing unit

Some women from Southend who give birth prematurely will have to be transferred to Chelmsford or Basildon following a permanent re-designation of the city’s neonatal unit.

Southend Hospital’s neonatal unit is set to be redesignated to only look after premature babies born five weeks early.

Southend is currently classified as a level 2 Local Neonatal Unit (LNU) for babies born at 27 weeks or more, but once it is redesignated as a Special Care Baby Unit (SCBU) it will only provide local care for babies born at 32 weeks or more.

It means from April 1 births that fall outside these categories will be delivered at Basildon or Broomfield hospitals.

The unit was downgraded to a Level 1 Special Care Baby Unit in December 2022.

Last year 14 women were transferred to another Mid and South Essex NHS Foundation Trust site, or another trust, as they were between 27 and 31 weeks pregnant.

Currently, it is designated as a Level 2 Local Neonatal Unit that provides care for all babies born 10 weeks early at 27 weeks or more.

Preterm is defined as babies born before 37 weeks of pregnancy.

The decision to permanently classify the unit at Southend from a Level 2 Local Neonatal Unit to a Level 1 Special Care Baby Unit (SCBU) comes as figures show demand across mid and south Essex does not warrant the current neonatal capacity.

A statement as part of discussion papers for the Health Overview Policy and Scrutiny Committee said: “The main impact of the change will be for babies born between 27­ and 32 ­weeks’ gestation who will need to be transferred to Basildon or Broomfield hospitals.

“Babies requiring level 3 care will be discussed via PaNDR (Paediatric and Neonatal Decision Support and Retrieval service) on a case by ­case basis.

“Women at high risk or identified as needing a higher level of neonatal care prior to delivery will have a birth plan which reflects a Basildon or Broomfield hospital delivery is required.”

The changes mean the number of intensive care cots will drop from two to one, the number of high-dependency cots will remain at three and the number of special care cots will fall from 11 to eight.

Mid and South says data and modelling indicate that the service does not need to run three level 2 LNUs to meet the needs – the three units are only marginally reaching the activity levels of 1,000 intensive care or high dependency bed days per year expected for LNU designation.

The service says this is also impacting the opportunity to develop and maintain clinical knowledge and skills to deliver a high-quality service.

Mid and South says the workforce is stretched to cover all three units to this level and, in particular, this impacts on the cover that the consultants on the Southend site are able to provide to the Children’s Emergency Department and Paediatric Assessment Unit.

A statement as part of discussion papers for the Health Overview Policy and Scrutiny Committee added: “The demand across mid and south Essex does not warrant the current neonatal capacity provided and therefore is not the best use of our stretched workforce who would be better deployed to support our Paediatric Assessment Unit (PAU), benefitting thousands of children per year.”

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Christine Sexton

Local Democracy Reporter