Aims and background: Alongside midwifery units (AMUs, also known as hospital or co-located birth centres) were identified as a novel hybrid organisational form in the Birthplace in England Research Programme. This follow-on study aimed to investigate how AMUs are organised, staffed and managed, the experiences of women, and maternity staff including those who work in AMUs and in adjacent obstetric units. This article focuses on study findings relating to the organisation and management of AMUs.
Methods: An organisational ethnography approach was used, incorporating case studies of four AMUs, selected for maximum variation on the basis of geographical context, length of establishment, size of unit, leadership and physical design. Interviews were conducted between December 2011 and October 2012 with service managers and key stakeholders (n = 35), with professionals working within and in relation to AMUs (n = 54) and with postnatal women and birth partners (n = 47). Observations were conducted of key decision-making points in the service (n = 20).
Findings: Managers saw four key areas as vital to developing and sustaining good quality midwifery unit care: finance and service management support, staffing, training, and appropriate guidelines. Development of AMUs was often opportunistic, with service leaders making use of service reconfigurations to achieve change, including development of MUs and new care pathways. Midwives working in AMUs valued the environment, approach and the opportunity to exercise greater clinical judgement but relations between groups of midwives in different units could be experienced as problematic. Key potential challenges for the quality, safety and sustainability of AMU care included: boundary work and management; professional issues; developing appropriate staffing models and relationships; midwives' skills and confidence; and information and access for women. Responses to such challenges included greater focus on interdisciplinary skills training, and integrated models of midwifery and care pathways. Positive leadership and appropriate development and use of guidelines were important to underpin the development and sustainability of midwifery units.
Conclusions: The units studied had been developed to form a key part of the maternity service, and their role was increasingly being recognised as valid and as maintaining the quality and safety of care in the maternity service as a whole. However, each was providing birth care for only about a third of women who had been classified as eligible to plan birth outside an obstetric unit at the end of pregnancy. Developing midwifery units involves aligning physical, professional and philosophical boundaries. However, this poses challenges when managing the service, to ensure it is sustainable, of high quality and safe. In order to fulfil evidence-based guidelines on providing midwifery unit care, further attention is needed to staff training and support; the development of integrated, continuity-based staffing models; and ensuring AMUs are positioned as a core service rather than a marginal one.
Keywords: Alongside midwifery unit; Birth centre; Birthplace; Management; Midwifery unit; Organisational ethnography.
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