Closing up to one in five hospital maternity units could improve care for mothers in labour, a doctors' leader has said.
Dr David Richmond, president of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (RCOG) told the Guardian that a shortage of maternity doctors had led to staff being stretched across units, meaning they spend too little time with expectant mothers.
Acknowledging that many would find the claim controversial, he told the newspaper: "I think we need a public debate about the sustainability of the service as we know it, matching patient expectations with the desires to improve the quality and safety of the pregnant mums we deal with.
"Are there enough obstetric doctors? In practice, no, to run all obstetric units in the country.
"We may need to consider the configuration of units which traditionally have had medical staff. If we work with the numbers of bodies that we've got at the moment it makes common sense to maximise your expertise ... in a smaller number of units. But I suspect that's probably only reducing them by 10%, maybe 20% in total."
The suggested cut would mean reducing the number of units from 147 to around 118.
Dr Richmond said: "There is an opportunity to focus the number of delivery units where you need medical expertise, or you think might need expertise, in a smaller number of premises.
"The medics are stretched too thinly and I think the clinical quality of care could be better."