Renewed calls for mandatory autopsies as stillbirth rates rival road toll

Date: Jul 26, 2011

A couple are calling for an overhaul of the medical system to allow parents of stillborn babies to get answers.

Parents Caroline and Mark Sugden have launched a campaign to change hospital procedures following the delivery of their stillborn baby.

The couple feel that the current system – which does not legally require an autopsy to be performed on stillborn children – does not allow parents access to enough information to make an informed decision.

Ms Sugden said that when she was informed of her stillborn child, she was given the option of having an autopsy performed, but was "bluntly" informed that there was little point to the procedure.

This experience is echoed by findings from a study performed in 2007 by Queensland University and La Trobe University, which investigated the reasons behind falling rates in autopsies performed after a stillbirth.

Findings revealed reasons for the drop includes a feeling amongst professional carers that they were "inadequate to counsel parents about autopsy" in the even of a stillbirth and did not wish to burden parents with these request at such an emotional time.

Parents who did not have an autopsy performed were also found to harbour regrets about their decision.

The study suggested that clinical staff provide information on the preventative nature of investigative procedures when broaching the subject with grieving parents.

On leaving the hospital, the Sugdens sought advice from a different obstetrician, who indicated that the stillbirth of their child may have been due to complications that were detectable before birth.

The couple – with the help of medical negligence lawyers – were able to sue their doctor, who settled out of court.

Neonatologist Heather Jeffery also calling for increases in government funding to allow for more stillbirth autopsies. She says that Australia is suffering a "tsunami of invisible deaths," with the number of stillborn children rivalling the national road toll in recent years.

A 2005 law reform committee held by the Victorian government into legislation regarding stillborn babies found that one in three causes of "unidentified" stillbirths could be made known if an autopsy was performed.

The committee chairman, former MP Rob Hudson, said that he found the issue to be a "difficult, vexed and grey area".

However, the reform did not recommend making any changes to the Coroners Act.

Those seeking redress for medical complications are advised to seek advice from an experienced compensation lawyer, rather than an unaccredited source.

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