Rural maternity units right across the country have been on the front line of funding cutbacks, staffing cutbacks and reduced investment, resulting in the closure of many of these facilities.
This is despite repeated research clearly showing that, for low-risk births, small rural maternity units make for very safe birthing outcomes in the bush, and that risks increase for mothers and babies when these units are closed.
Since the 1980s various and successive State governments across the country have closed rural maternity units prematurely on the basis of a shortage of local doctors or midwives, when giving the unit some time to recruit new permanent team members, or implementing a different model of care, would allow the unit to recover.
Closing a rural maternity unit leads to the deskilling or loss from the community of existing doctors, midwives and nursing staff, which can drastically increase the risk to patients presenting with complications or an emergency at a hospital which no longer hosts a maternity skill set.
Many families have been seriously impacted by rural maternity unit closures.
The Rural Doctors’ Association of Australia (RDAA) is calling on the Council of Australian Governments’ (COAG) Health Ministers to make rural hospital funding - and the preservation of rural maternity units - a standing item on their agenda.
It is time for serious discussion between the Federal and State governments of the safety risks of closing rural maternity units, and how best these services can be funded in order to remain open.
There must be a focus on implementing a better Federal-State funding model for rural maternity care, to ensure the existing network of rural maternity units is preserved and some previously mothballed units can be re-opened - as has occurred and been welcomed in Queensland.
COAG also needs to give consideration to implementing a national 'safety net' funding support pool to assist rural maternity units at impending or immediate risk of closure, and to modernise infrastructure at some units. We know from our RDAA members that a number of sites are at risk of closure across Queensland, New South Wales and Victoria.
With more certain funding support, there would also be significant opportunities to better utilise rural maternity units in training the next generation of Rural Generalist doctors.
The Federal Government is currently undertaking Australia-wide consultations to underpin a National Strategic Approach to Maternity Services (NSAMS), and the RDAA will be providing a submission to this process.
It is critical that the continued provision of rural maternity care across Australia is a key focus of this consultation, and we urge rural doctors, mothers and other maternity care stakeholders to take this opportunity to have their say.
A NSAMS consultation session will be held at the forthcoming Rural Medicine Australia (RMA18) conference, to be held in Darwin in October.
This session will afford representatives of the Federal Government an opportunity to seek the views of many rural doctors and other rural health stakeholders on rural maternity care, and how best to ensure the survival - and even reinstatement - of rural maternity units into the future.