Babies from black, Asian and ethnic minority backgrounds could be at risk because NHS health assessments are based on white babies, a new report suggests.
Newborn assessments used in the NHS today are decades old and ‘mainly based on white European babies’, it said.
Healthcare workers carry out a number of assessments to check the heath of babies straight after they’re born – one of them, the Apgar test, takes place in the first 10 minutes after birth.
It checks the baby’s heart rate, reflexes, muscle tone, breathing and the baby’s skin colour. To score highly, their skin must be ‘pink all over’.
But he NHS Race and Health Observatory says the test, first developed in 1952, is ‘not fit for purpose’ for ethnic minority babies.
Many NHS guidelines and policies use words like ‘pink’, ‘blue’ and ‘pale’ to describe a baby’s skin colour, but don’t make clear how those colours might appear differently for babies from different backgrounds.
The report, conducted by experts at Sheffield Hallam University, found most guidelines don’t differentiate between different skin tones, which means ‘some minority ethnic babies are not being assessed effectively’.
Healthcare workers will usually look at a baby for clues to see if they have cyanosis, when a baby does not have enough oxygen in the blood, or jaundice, a condition where there is too much of a chemical called bilirubin in the blood.
But the report points out there are some devices that can detect these conditions more accurately.
They said there is not enough training for healthcare workers, or parents, in how to spot jaundice or cyanosis in black, Asian and minority ethnic babies, and these devices should be used.
The report also calls for better training for health workers and more information for parents.
Dr Habib Naqvi, chief executive of the NHS Race and Health Observatory, said: ‘We need to address the limitations in visual examinations of newborns, such as Apgar scores, where the assessment of skin colour can potentially disadvantage black, Asian and ethnic minority babies with darker skin.
‘The results from this initial review highlight the bias that can be inherent in healthcare interventions and assessments and lead to inaccurate assessments, late diagnosis and poorer outcomes for diverse communities.
‘The Observatory is committed to providing practical solutions to patient safety challenges.’
Hora Soltani, professor of maternal and infant health at Sheffield Hallam University, added: ‘We are very grateful to the Observatory for supporting this project and for the efforts of our collaborative team who for the first time, have systematically examined the relevance of the most commonly practised neonatal assessments which have been developed decades ago mainly based on white European babies.
‘The importance of listening to the parents’ concerns and appropriateness of policies and education of healthcare professionals including access to educational materials which reflect the impact of various skin colour tones on such important areas of neonatal assessment are among the key findings of this work.’
A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said: ‘While the NHS is already one of the safest places to give birth in the world, we are absolutely clear that maternity care must be of the same high standard for everyone.
‘NHS England has published guidance for local maternity systems, supported by £6.8 million, focusing on actions to reduce disparities for women and babies from ethnic minorities and those living in the most deprived areas.
‘We also set up the maternity disparities taskforce which brings together experts from across the health system, government departments and the voluntary sector to explore and consider evidence-based interventions to tackle maternal disparities.’
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