Staff at Portiuncula Hospital in Ballinasloe, Co Galway, raised concerns about a spike in problem births on a number of occasions last year before action was taken, according to local sources.
Concerns were flagged about an increase in babies born unresponsive, or “flat”, earlier in the year. But the problem was not taken further until more newborns were referred for treatment in Dublin at the end of the year, it is claimed.
However, a spokesman for the local hospital group said it was only last November, after six cases had occurred, that external management became aware of the issue.
Minister for Health Leo Varadkar has defended standards at the maternity unit of the hospital, where an investigation has identified deficiencies in the care of seven babies. Two of the babies died shortly after birth and five suffered oxygen deprivation during delivery.
At least one of the families involved had yet to be contacted successfully on Friday.
Care up to standard
Mr Varadkar said the standard of care at Portiuncula was “on a par” with any other maternity hospital in the State. Remedial action had been taken after the deficiencies were identified last year and there had been no adverse incidents since.
Portiuncula, a HSE hospital serving east Galway, Roscommon, the midlands and the midwest, delivers about 2,000 babies each year.
The deficiencies identified in the Portiuncula review relate to the interpretation of tracings of the foetal heartbeat, the appropriateness of using drugs to accelerate labour, and instrumental delivery.
The Saolta Hospital Group, which includes Portiuncula, has said it is contacting the families and making appointments for consultations with medical staff and support services.
"In light of the initial internal review, the families are being advised that their babies' cases will be part of an in-depth review that has been initiated by Portiuncula Hospital Ballinasloe-Saolta University Health Care Group, " Saolta said in a statement.
The review will be completed within three months by an independent expert team, which will include a patient representative. According to the statement, affected families will be consulted on the terms of reference and will be engaged with as part of the process.
Spike in referrals
The initial review was triggered when a spike in the number of newborns referred to Dublin for “head cooling” was detected. “Head cooling” is a new technique credited with reducing the risk of brain injury by 50 per cent.
The number referred from Portiuncula last year – six –was three times the level of a comparable hospital.
Local TD Denis Naughten said the investigation at Portiuncula must be independent and "seen to be independent of medical agendas".
“In the interests of the parents involved, the staff at the hospital and parents about to use the service, this investigation must be solely focused on what happened and what can be done to reduce the possibility of such serious incidents happening again.”
Staff at the hospital have set up a helpline for user of its maternity services who may have any concerns. The number is 090-9624620