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By Andy Beckingham FFPH, Fernandez Hospital, Hyderabad

Giggling Girls!

The scope of our profession gives opportunities to branch out. These may not always look at first glance like ‘public health’.

In 2010, working in India on maternal mortality, someone asked over dinner if I thought UK-style midwifery might be useful in India where doctors provided all the care. “Perhaps if you try the bits that work for women,” I said. “And avoid the bits that the NHS got so wrong.” My dinner companion turned out to be the MD of India’s most famous maternity hospital, and I found myself designing her midwifery pilot programme.

The midwife who had run the UK’s most woman-friendly midwifery service (the Albany Practice, which achieved great outcomes for disadvantaged women) was inveigled into joining us as a mentor. Eight anxious trainees found themselves becoming India’s first evidence-based woman-centred midwives (pictured). They began to develop their own profession, promoting choice about labour and supporting and empowering women to have more natural births. They had to challenge established obstetric practice. Our hospital’s maternity care began to change. Babies had been routinely separated from the mother at birth, although this impedes attachment and breastfeeding. The midwives worked with paediatricians to change that. Now most mothers have immediate contact and breastfeed their babies in the first hour.

Now leaders in their own right, those first eight have since mentored other trainees to become strong professional midwives, supporting thousands of Indian women to have better births.

Like most countries, India has unnecessarily high rates of intervention in childbirth. A local public hospital’s c-section rate is 52%. A local private hospital’s is 90%. But thanks to the midwives, ours has come right down. Instead of epidurals being routine, midwives ask women what pain relief they want. They offer choice. Women get continuity of care. The outcomes are better. Satisfaction rates are high.

In 2017, the state government invited us to train midwives to work in their hospitals too. They want c-section rates to come down. But they also want compassionate, respectful maternity care for the large numbers of women who are mostly ‘below poverty line’. So maybe, just maybe, this could become a model for wider public maternal-health improvement in lower-income countries. I have to assess its impact.

Designing a midwifery programme and curriculum doesn’t at first look like a public health role. But it is starting to address unmet needs, inequalities and disadvantage, improve care quality and effectiveness, show that Indian women and their choices matter. Of course, it will need to be part of wider action on social and economic determinants of maternal health.

And now, this alternative to the medical model is available, and the state government is actively promoting compassionate, effective midwifery care and supporting us to roll out professional midwifery more widely, among very disadvantaged women.

Public health, in disguise.

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