Birth of popular private maternity

A growing number of expectant mothers are opting for the comfort, consistency and predictability of private maternity care combined with the emergency back-up of a National Health Service hospital, writes Dan Matthews

Let’s get one thing clear from the get-go – the NHS does a fine job for its maternity patients, providing a good basic system of antenatal and postnatal care, and delivering thousands of healthy babies every year to happy mums and dads.

For the majority of expectant parents, this is the preferred route to take. It is free at the point of service and there exists a wealth of free and paid-for options to learn more about early parenting and decide, within reason, the circumstances of each baby’s arrival.

But pure-play NHS maternity care is necessarily a streamlined service with an emphasis on safely seeing pregnancies to their conclusion in an efficient way and not necessarily with a focus on comfort or consistency of care.

In the year 2011-12, NHS hospitals delivered almost 669,000 babies, 25 per cent of which were caesareans and 12 per cent induced births.

It’s a lot of work for public-sector healthcare workers and a whole lot of cost to be funded by taxpayers; so hospital bosses, guided by government ministers, keep the service lean, with a focus on efficient, practical services.

Private maternity is seen as a way for parents-in-waiting to take control of their pregnancy

Increasingly, mums and dads-to-be are researching their maternity options and discovering that, for a price, they can get a suite of added benefits layered on top which will make the experience more comfortable and potentially more reassuring.

The trend towards private maternity is being fuelled by a number of factors, not least the arrival of successive royal babies and high-profile superstar offspring at exclusive and expensive baby centres around the world.

But it is also being powered by the changing demographics of people having children. Societal and financial pressures mean that many women opt to lay down the foundations of a successful career before starting a family, with the inevitable effect that new mothers are getting older.

According to government data crunchers, there are now more new mothers over the age of 30 than at any time since the Second World War. Back then, men reunited with girlfriends, fiancés and wives, after serving abroad, caused the baby boom.

Now it’s the high cost of living and economic uncertainty that convinces many to postpone having children. Currently, the 30-to-34 age bracket is most populous for new mothers with 352,557 babies born to women over 30 during 2011.

More “senior” mums means two things – one is a greater likelihood of complications occurring within pregnancies and the other is that they have more money. Private maternity is seen as a way for parents-in-waiting to take control of their pregnancy.

It is where private-sector businesses step in to complement the standard NHS service or to replace it completely. Most paid-for maternity services take all the benefits of NHS treatment – the resources, equipment and emergency facilities – and add services aimed at creating a better experience for “customers”.

The Portland Hospital, the UK’s only fully private maternity hospital, delivers some 2,000 babies a year, while only a small fraction of the 6,000 babies delivered at Guy’s and St Thomas’ or the 5,000 babies delivered annually at Chelsea and Westminster Hospital enter the world in private wards.

These lower numbers means there is more resource to share around, less chance of an overwhelming surge in labour-stricken mums-to-be and more focus on making the experience as much like a short stay in a good hotel as is humanly possible.

The options for care and comfort are extensive and range from simple measures, such as hiring a dedicated midwife or booking a private recovery room after the birth instead of staying in the postnatal ward, all the way up to the bells and whistles of a plush private bedroom in a hospital.

Booking in a private hospital or birthing centre gives patients more control over the birthing experience, and all but guarantees a more luxurious stay that helps new mothers and fathers spend time and energy bonding with their new baby.

Customers can select their own dedicated obstetrician, who will act as a consultant throughout the pregnancy and may even be at delivery of the baby, and they can generally expect a private room with en-suite facilities complete with all the recovery time they need.

The cost is the downside, of course, and it’s the reason the cash-strapped NHS can’t afford to treat its maternity patients with the same kid gloves. Prices vary depending on the services patients require, but bills can range from a few hundred to many thousands of pounds.

With a series of famous births taking place this year and next, all set against the backdrop of a trend for well-heeled women and their partners taking more control over the course of their maternity care, now is the perfect time to take stock and assess the market for private maternity.

What is the nature of this growing industry and how it has evolved, what is the cost and how does it fit within wider health services? Is this something just for the super-wealthy or a genuine option that combines the service focus of the private sector with the resources of the NHS? Read on…