HSE publishes new care guidelines for supporting bereaved parents

New policy document is informed by deaths of Savita Halappanavar and Portlaoise babies

HSE publishes new care guidelines for supporting bereaved parents

Photocall file photo

The HSE has published new staff guidelines for supporting parents who have lost a baby.

The standards provide guidance on how to respond to the needs of families who have experienced a perinatal death, pregnancy loss or fatal foetal abnormality diagnosis.

The health service said they were developed in response to recommendations arising from both the HSE’s investigation into the death of Savita Halappanavar and Dr Peter Boylan’s review of baby deaths at Portlaoise Hospital.

An official 2013 report into Mrs Halappanavar's death following a miscarriage found a series of failures by staff, while a 2014 HSE probe into maternity care at Portlaoise described bereaved families as being treated in an "appalling manner" at times.

The new policy document sets out the standard of care grieving parents should expect to receive through the Irish health system.

The guidelines identify the need to communicate with affected families in a clear, sensitive and timely manner before and after a baby’s death.

Staff are also advised to offer bereavement support following the diagnosis of an anomaly that is life-limiting or fatal.

The document features advice on how to provide support that takes into consideration the cultural, religious and secular preferences of parents.

This includes a recommendation that families are informed about the relevant hospital’s annual non-denominational remembrance service.

Parents should be actively involved in discussions and decisions about their baby being admitted and discharged from hospital, or transferred to another setting for end-of-life care, the official guidance says. 

The standards will be implemented across the health service in all appropriate hospitals and settings.

Launching the document, Minister for Health Simon Harris said he hoped the new guidelines will ensure grieving families receive the care and compassion they need.

"Today marks a new beginning for bereavement care services for parents who have the devastating experience of a pregnancy loss or perinatal death,” he said.

Call for perinatal hospice care

The guidance was cautiously welcomed by Sarah Nugent of Every Life Counts, which supports parents of children who were diagnosed with a terminal condition.

"My baby Isabella lived for 54 days after birth, and my heart broke when she died, but I never received any counselling,” she said.

"We welcome a move towards better bereavement care, but families need more, they need perinatal hospice care.”

Ms Nugent added that there was an urgent need to establish such care for parents whose babies are not expected to live long after birth.

"Right now, parents are being told their baby is very sick, because a condition like anencephaly or Trisomy 18 might severely shorten their lives, and some of those parents will have to go home and google the condition to find out more.

"They will get very little help in carrying their babies and in trying to pour a lifetime of love into the short hours or days they may have with baby after birth. Parents deserve better than this."

Under the new guidelines, all maternity hospitals will now establish or further develop bereavement specialist teams to assist families and health staff dealing with pregnancy loss.

These teams will be made up of staff members who have undertaken specialist and extensive education in bereavement care.

The guidance was informed by a national audit of bereavement services in maternity units and a public consultation process that yielded 164 submissions, as well as the development of the new national maternity strategy.