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Hospital shortages threaten local births for Vic women

Maternity services in Victoria's Geelong region are struggling to get enough staff, causing them to turn pregnant women away to other centres.



Pregnant women in a regional Victorian city face being sent up to 75km away to deliver their babies because of hospital staff shortages. 


Women approaching labour in Geelong have the very real prospect of being sent to Werribee or Melbourne to give birth.


The closure of maternity services at Epworth Geelong in March this year brought the number of services in the regional centre down from three to two.


At the time Epworth cited staffing shortages as a major reason for the closure.

The shortages in the city could force patients to travel 45km away to Werribee or even 75km to Melbourne to have their babies.


Since the closure, the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists said services in the greater Geelong region haven't kept pace with an increasing population.


"The college is aware that St John of God Hospital Geelong and University Hospital Geelong have, at times over the last few months, been on bypass for maternity patients and babies, and have needed to transfer patients for whom they would ordinarily be able to provide care," a spokesperson told AAP.


"Services have not kept pace with increasing population, and many women have more complex needs than in the past.


"The main issue has been a physical lack of beds and space, and workforce issues."

Berth Geelong, which provides pregnancy care, on Friday sent an email to clients warning of the situation at St John of God Geelong. 


"Due to a shortage of paediatrician cover, the hospital may go on bypass," the email said. 

"Be assured the bypass is not related to midwifery care or due to hospital capacity but rather a challenge in providing adequate paediatric support."


AAP has also seen paediatric guidelines sent to staff at St John of God Geelong making it clear that paediatricians who work there are only available between school drop off and pick up. 


Outside of those times, staff have been directed to contact the on-call paediatrician.

However, a spokesperson for St John of God Geelong rejected claims it was on bypass. They did not answer questions about whether the hospital's maternity service had been on bypass anytime in the past six months.


National Association of Specialist Obstetricians and Gynaecologists president Gino Pecoraro says it's an all too familiar story, as regional centres across the country struggle to find staff.


"We are in the process of maternity services collapse around the country - it's not a polite way to put it, but it's true," Prof Pecoraro said.


"This is exactly what happened with Queensland, with Gladstone, then Rockhampton and now Cairns - and regional NSW is no different."


Mr Pecoraro says when private healthcare becomes unaffordable, fewer women use the private sector, putting pressure on public hospitals and making it harder to entice obstetricians, paediatricians and other specialists.


Barwon Health spokeswoman Kate Bibby said their network had the ability to provide support in the region when required - which included maternity services and birth suites.


"University Hospital Geelong averages about eight births each day and we regularly manage periods of higher birth numbers," Ms Bibby said.


The Victorian government says Barwon Health is meeting the maternity demands of the local community and has more than enough capacity to meet the needs of the region.


A spokesman said the government was also backing a range of initiatives to grow the healthcare workforce, with particular attention paid to regional health services.


Staffing issues have been felt by Colac Area Health too.


CEO Fiona Brew says Colac Hospital periodically goes on bypass due to staffing issues.

"It is always a difficult decision to make knowing the potential impact on our community," Ms Brew told AAP.


"We are not on extended bypass and we work very closely with our patients on an individual care plan to ensure both mother and baby are safe."


Ms Brew said patients were usually diverted to Barwon Health's University Hospital, but if the family lived closer they could be sent to South West Healthcare.


The state Health Department was unable to provide data on where women gave birth based on their postcode.


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