Tommy's Chief Executive gives evidence at the Preterm Birth Committee

Kath Abrahams was invited to give evidence alongside representatives from Sands and Borne as the House of Lords Preterm Birth Committee open their inquiry into the prevention and consequences of preterm birth.

We currently estimate that around 53,000 babies are born prematurely every year in the UK – higher than average across Europe – and 75% of these early births are completely unexpected.  

As pioneers of preterm birth research for over 30 years, this is something we at Tommy’s are fighting to change. In fact, it’s exactly why we’re about to launch a new National Centre for Preterm Birth Research, the first of its kind.  

The impact of premature birth can be significant and far reaching. It’s the leading cause of death in children under 5, and for those babies who survive there’s a higher risk of permanent disability, long-term health problems and developmental issues which can follow them all their lives. There’s the physical, emotional and psychological impact on parents, who may be separated from their children as they split their lives between hospital and home for weeks and months at a time. And as a result of all these challenges, there’s naturally a wider impact on society – and pressure put on healthcare, welfare and education services – too.

We are therefore pleased the House of Lords Preterm Birth Committee has opened its inquiry into the prevention and consequences of preterm birth, raising much-needed awareness of the issue, and were proud that Kath Abrahams, our Chief Executive, was invited to give evidence today.  

Tommy’s is the leading charity funder of pregnancy research in the UK and, having been founded as a premature birth campaign over 30 years ago, it’s an issue that is still very close to our hearts.

Kath spoke to the committee about the work we’ve already done at Tommy’s to predict and prevent premature birth to save babies’ lives, breakthroughs such as the development of the QUiPP app by our team at the Tommy’s Preterm Birth Surveillance Clinic at St Thomas’ Hospital. Already in use in many NHS Trusts, it gives an accurate way to find out who is at risk of premature birth so they can be given the right treatment at the right time.

We need to do more to adequately assess risk in pregnancy, which is why the QuiPP algorithm is a vital component of the Tommy’s Pathway, our clinical decision tool currently being trialled in a number of NHS hospitals which is designed to better identify risk in pregnancy and signpost to best practice care. We believe this new clinical tool will reduce stillbirth and preterm birth, and crucially reduce the unacceptable inequalities which currently exist.

Kath also outlined some of the core challenges we believe need to be investigated and addressed on a national level to have the greatest impact. We know ethnicity has a significant impact on the likelihood of a baby being born too soon, with Black and Asian women facing unacceptable disparities in risks and outcomes, but more research is needed to understand why. Similarly we know there can be socioeconomic and geographical risk factors too, and Kath was very clear that tackling and reducing inequities is a research priority for us through the centre’s work. We have a dedicated research stream looking at just this area, with one project for example, looking at the role of genetics in preterm birth risk.  

Having spoken to amazing parents in our community, some of whom have their premature babies in their arms but many who sadly do not, we know the challenges of premature birth are not limited to a baby’s time in hospital. As part of her evidence, Kath cited our own survey of parents indicated high rates of anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder, with over 50% feeling a sense of guilt and almost 3 in 4 saying they didn’t understand the full extent of what was happening.  

She also spoke about the importance of research breakthroughs making their way into patient-focussed care. Tommy’s has an impressive track record in speeding up the time it takes from scientific research to go from lab bench to NHS bedside, and we are committed to translating breakthroughs into improvements in care for all.  

To make sure these breakthroughs translate to changes at a national level, the centre aims to drive changes in policy too. They’ll be hosting a Policy Lab in May to explore how we can accelerate the shift in care and public perception needed to reduce the harms and costs of preterm birth.  

Our new centre, along with the increased awareness brought by this committee, presents an exciting opportunity to rapidly advance our understanding of causes and deliver new innovative treatments, reducing the rates of premature birth in the UK and improving outcomes for families – giving a new generation a better start in life.  

Find out more about the preterm birth research Tommy’s funds, highlighted in today’s committee, here.