‘Are we finding out the causes for preterm birth? The answer is yes.’

Professor Andy Shennan, Clinical Director of Tommy’s Preterm Surveillance Clinic, says that we are now able to help women who ten years ago we wouldn’t have been able to.

Premature baby in incubator being touched by mother's hand.

November 2016

Since we opened in 1995, Tommy’s prematurity research centre in London has been tackling the problem of prematurity in the UK.

We are taking on premature birth because the number of babies born early in the UK is unacceptably high.

In fact, rates of preterm birth in the UK are amongst the highest in the world. 60,000 babies per year are born too soon.

This is a real problem. The emotional burden of preterm birth on parents and families huge and can cause lasting damage to parent’s mental health.

As well as this, children can suffer lifelong disabilities and health problems as a result of being born too soon.

In the very worst cases, preterm birth can lead to the loss of a baby. It’s the leading cause of neonatal death in the UK.

This is why Tommy’s is putting time, effort and funds into cracking the problem of prematurity.

As well as the ongoing research that is underway, our London prematurity centre runs a weekly Preterm Surveillance Clinic which annually helps over 1,300 new patients.

The clinic is run by Professor Andy Shennan and has reduced premature birth, both locally and regionally, by more than 10 percent against a national and international rise.

Catherine Jayaram was treated at the preterm clinic after suffering previous losses and says that without Professor Shennan and his team, her baby would not be alive today.

‘The fact that Priya survived pregnancy past viability is purely down to Professor Shennan and his team. Their knowledge means they can correctly identify risk factors and offer treatments that many hospitals, including my local hospital, can't. Words cannot express the level of gratitude I have for the clinic. I just hope that one day the care given at these clinics becomes a national standard, so that more women like me can have a positive ending.’

Professor Shennan has taken the time to answer a few questions and give us an idea of how the clinic works and the impact it is having on parents and pregnancy at the moment.

How long have you been working at Tommy’s Preterm Surveillance Clinic?

I have been working at the clinic for more than 10 years now. It is the first of its kind, probably in the world, and is certainly the biggest now. Compared to last year, we have had a big uplift in referrals and the women coming to us are ‘higher risk’, which means we are helping the women who need it most. We are seeing approximately 50 – 60 women each week and they are coming from all over the country, even internationally. We are delighted to have that reputation.

Why have you chosen to focus on prematurity research?

Prematurity is a relatively fledgling area in terms of being able to actively do things such as detect problems and address them. This means it’s very exciting area to be in. It is also a devastating area and one that we as a medical profession are yet to crack. It is as big a problem now as it was 20 years ago, and only just starting to change. There is a growing interest in this issues and a realisation of how important it is that we do something to help the poor mothers who suffer early birth. Tommy’s have been fantastic in this regard. They’ve had a long term goal in making a difference in this area and with their support we’ve really gone from strength to strength. We have been able to increase the size of our clinic, provide women who come to us with the highest level care and treatment and conduct the research that is really making a difference.

Why has it taken so long for us to start bringing about change in this area?

We have always known that premature birth is a difficult problem. Historically, the issue has been that we have not had the tools to detect it, the knowledge to know why it is happening and, most importantly, we have not been sure what to do about it. All of this research has been relatively recent. In the last 10 years there have been radical differences, even a year ago there are things we weren’t doing which are now national recommendations. With Tommy’s help we have been able to set up similar clinics elsewhere with whom to share best practise and learn from each other.

Are we moving towards a point where we can finally give women answers to questions as to why it happened and if it’s going to happen again?

Unfortunately, in some cases we still don’t know why babies are born too early. However, our knowledge in this area is increasing enormously. For example, we can now quite accurately tell women when they are going to be ok or when they need to be watched very closely through pregnancy. We’ve got tests in early pregnancy which enable us to say “look, you’re going to be alright” and that’s of enormous value in reassuring women. 70 % are told they will be fine and we are then able to focus on monitoring and helping those who need it. Are we finding out the causes? The answer is yes. There are new causes even now that we’ve found out about in the last year due to the recent collective focus on this area. We are being able to help women who ten years ago we wouldn’t have been able to without these initiatives.

How would women go about getting a referral to the clinic?

We would urge women to first discuss any problems with their doctor, midwife or obstetrician if they are pregnant, as very often these medical professionals are perfectly skilled, knowledgeable and able to deal with most problems. If they feel we can add anything, if it is a particularly difficult or complicated problem for example, then we often get referrals through the obstetricians or doctors themselves. However, every week we get some women who contact us directly via text, email or phone and we do respond and see them very quickly. It is always good to seek advice from a medical professional that you know and trust first to see if the problem can be resolved by them but if all else fails we are very happy to take direct referrals.

What do the funds that our supporters generously donate enable you to do here at the clinic that you wouldn’t otherwise be able to?

We wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for Tommy’s. The job I do, the infrastructure of the clinic, all of this has been created because of Tommy’s. I can reassure anyone who donates that this money is a critical part of growing what we do.

What is your proudest achievement to date?

It’s difficult to pick just one moment but in my office I have this huge board of delightful images mothers have sent us of their healthy, happy babies with messages of thanks. When you’ve had a bad day, you go up and read those, and it doesn’t matter how bad your day has been, it just puts you on cloud nine. You think ‘I can take all the rubbish in the world for that, it’s worth it’.

If you’re interested in the work of our Preterm Surveillance Clinic and want to hear more about what Tommy’s is doing to address premature birth you can read all about our prematurity research here.

You can read all of our information pages about premature birth here.

Read more information about premature birth here

Read more information about premature birth here

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