Edwina Sharrock founded the service, Birth Beat, with the needs of rural and remote expectant parents in mind. What she inadvertently created was a pandemic-resistant model of health care delivery.
“I think because we were early adopters of delivering online birth education, we were well-positioned to meet increased needs,” said Edwina.
Indeed, Birth Beat began in 2012 as face-to-face classes in Edwina’s living room in Tamworth NSW, and digital access evolved after attendees came from as far away as Bourke.
The passionate midwife and birth educator – recently recognised with an OAM for service to community health – says demand for the interactive classes and online resources offered by Birth Beat soared as COVID-19 hit.
“We just got bombarded.” Edwina, who continues to work for Hunter New England Health and volunteer at Tamworth Hospital, says it was “an exciting opportunity” when a hospital approached Birth Beat to deliver its model of education.
Birth Beat is recognised with most of Australia’s private health insurers, and the service received some Telehealth funding for antenatal care during the pandemic.
As the pandemic derailed access to in-person classes, Edwina offered four ‘call-the-midwife’ sessions each week on Facebook and Instagram.
“That went nuts with mums all over the country, and we had 20,000 hits on the website each month,” she said.
“In pregnancy, there is so much unknown already. Then you add a global pandemic on top of that, plus the feeling that the information was changing day-by-day.”
As the world changed around pregnant women during a vulnerable time in their lives, Edwina says the Australian College of Midwives and the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists provided strong information for health carers to share.
“My job was to not feed into the hysteria that the media was creating. That is our role as health professionals, we’re there to look after the physical and mental health of our clients.”
It was clear to Edwina and her team, however, that the full impact of COVID-19 on expectant mothers and their families would last well beyond the acute crisis of 2020.
“The organization Perinatal Anxiety & Depression Australia, or PANDA, reported a more than 30 per cent increase in crisis calls in a matter of three months; a lot of these from Victoria,” Edwina said. “It does take a village to raise a child and care for a mum, and that was dismantled.” And this reduced access to support networks is ongoing.
“We’re going to see a lot of traction in online childbirth classes … [pre-pandemic] there wasn’t much out there. A few providers offered online programs that weren’t interactive.”
Edwina says for women living in rural, regional and remote Australia, disadvantages that pre-date COVID-19 require urgent attention.
“While it isn’t common, just yesterday I posted a USB to a woman living in a black-spot, as that was the only way she could access the material,” Edwina said.
“Access to specialist services continues to be an issue in rural, regional and remote areas. Access to mental health services and face-to-face consultations are also an issue. This is an ongoing challenge for regional Australia.”
To cope with the needs of new mothers – particularly mental health needs – as the country finds its feet, Edwina says it is more important than ever to attract health workers to rural areas.
“I think we have to change narrative around ‘doing your time’ in the country, because as a health professional it can be so much more – so incredibly rewarding, and we need to celebrate this,” said Edwina.