Professor Sir Ian Kennedy said that while the commission was not opposed to all service changes, managers had to 'keep their eye on the ball' in respect of safety. 'Our investigations in maternity services have identified certain common features leading to risks to patients, one of which is structural change, such as a merger or reconfiguration,' he said.
'It is terribly important that services and particularly maternity services keep their eye on the ball of safety as they go through the forthcoming period of change and development.'
However, he said the commission was not questioning the need for change in maternity services.
'Our recently published review of children's hospital services shows change is often essential to make services as safe as possible for patients.'
Sir Ian was speaking at a conference on maternity services at King's College London held jointly with the National Patient Safety Agency.
Number one priority
He said that while there had been improvements since the 2001 public inquiry into paediatric heart surgery at Bristol Royal Infirmary, patient safety was still not being given enough attention.
'More still needs to be done. Six years on, there is still some way to go before safety takes its proper place as the number one priority for healthcare services.'
He told the event: 'Our investigations have undoubtedly triggered significant changes in the organisations investigated. We also have to ensure that the lessons about safe care are learned right across the system.'
NHS Confederation chief executive Dr Gill Morgan endorsed the warning, which she said was 'common sense'.
'We know, not just for maternity but for every service, both clinically and financially, that it is at times of structural change that people can easily take their eye off the ball if they are worried about jobs and things like that.
'That's why a time of stability is absolutely vital for the NHS.'
A national review of maternity services is being carried out by the watchdog, taking into account a survey sent to 50,000 mothers. It will provide a maternity services rating for each trust in England and will be published early next year.
See feature, pages 24-26, 5 July 2007.