Closure of Geelong maternity hospital could ‘put lives at risk’ amid baby boom

Key points

  • Epworth HealthCare has announced plans to close its Geelong maternity service by March 1, due to staff shortages.
  • Local doctors are concerned as common procedures such as terminations are not available at the nearby Catholic private hospital, St John of God.
  • Birth rates in Geelong are well above the state average. The announcement has left about 300 expectant mothers seeking alternative care.

Doctors warn health services will not cope with the closure of a key maternity hospital in Geelong, one of Australia’s fastest-growing regions.

Epworth HealthCare has announced plans to close its Geelong maternity service by March 1, citing ongoing shortages of obstetricians, nurses and midwives.

One obstetrician is so worried about the loss of maternity services in Victoria’s south-west, she is concerned the lives of mothers and their babies could be put at risk, by limiting health services.

About 300 women have been left scrambling to book in at the nearby Catholic private hospital, St John of God, or the regional city’s only public facility, the University Hospital Geelong.

Expectant mum Jocelyn Pritchard, pictured with daughter Harriet, was left scrambling to find a new hospital following the announcement of the Epworth closure.Credit: Simon Schluter

Geelong GP Elise Davey, who gave birth to her second son at the Epworth last year, said the birth rate in Geelong had been phenomenal during the pandemic.

“The public system is already buckling under the pressure, let alone growing demand from a huge baby boom and a growing population,” Davey said.

The proposed closure has sparked fierce community outrage, and a petition to save the unit, started by Davey, has garnered nearly 14,000 signatures.

Obstetrician Kara Thompson whose clinic OGB Surf Coast opened rooms at Epworth last year, said it made no sense to cut crucial health services when Geelong is one of the country’s fastest-growing regions.

“It is not an exaggeration to say this will be a tragedy for a generation of women,” she said.

Obstetrician Nisha Khot fears the closure of the only private secular maternity unit in Geelong, will mean women seeking procedures, including terminations, tubal ligation, and other methods of contraception post-birth will face increasing challenges as such treatments are not available at the St John of God hospital.

Of most concern to Khot, board director of the Royal Australian New Zealand College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, are women wanting terminations, including for pregnancies where the fetus is found to have life-threatening anomalies.

Dr Nisha Khot fears women in the Geelong area seeking procedures, including terminations, will face challenges because these treatments are not available at Catholic health provider St John of God.Credit:Justin McManus

“A private hospital that is a Catholic hospital does not provide termination options for women, which means that these women will have no choice but to go to the local public hospital,” Khot said.

“These are really heartbreaking decisions to make and to not have those choices available when you’re making such a difficult, life-changing decision is simply not acceptable.”

A pandemic fuelled sea change has led to a population boom of more than 13,000 people flocking to popular Surf Coast and Bellarine Peninsula towns, while Geelong has swelled by more than 5000 people.

Birth rates in Geelong are well above the state average. Last year, the Geelong local government area had the fifth-highest birth rate in Victoria and the highest birth rate outside metropolitan Melbourne, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics.

Thompson said the Epworth’s maternity unit serviced not only women from Geelong, but those seeking private healthcare from Colac, Birregurra, Winchelsea and Portland.

She said fewer options for private patients meant hundreds more women would opt to give birth at Geelong’s only public hospital each year, and could force the health service to implement shorter postnatal stays.

“Instead of them staying overnight we could be waving goodbye to them sometimes just a few hours after they’ve had their baby,” Thompson said.

“You can always shorten stays and churn through more women, but it might be that the quality of that care is compromised for some people, especially if they don’t have support at home.”

Davey is concerned there is not enough capacity at St John of God and the public hospital to absorb the soaring numbers of births. The maternity ward at Epworth was growing by about 20 per cent per year and delivered 500 babies in 2022.

Thompson said Australia did not want to be in a situation like the United Kingdom, where chronic and systemic underfunding of maternity health had resulted in hundreds of preventable deaths of babies and women.

“What is at stake here are the lives of women and their babies,” she said.

“What is at stake here are the lives of women and their babies.”

Expectant mother, Jocelyn Pritchard, was in her car driving to the shops when she heard about the maternity unit closure on the radio.

“At first, I just assumed that it couldn’t possibly be legitimate because the thought of a hospital suddenly closing down is just crazy,” the 31-year-old Geelong woman said.

“I was just in shock and walking around Target in tears trying to process it.”

She gave birth to her daughter Harriet at in the Epworth maternity ward three years earlier.

“We had such a great experience, and we were really looking forward to going through them again,” she said. “But the staff at the hospital told us they can’t tell us anything until February 14, at the earliest, which is actually useless if you’re due in March.”

Pritchard, who is due to give birth in March, was left frantically trying to book in at St John of God.

Across Victoria, maternity wards have been increasingly under pressure with staff asked to work double shifts, often for up to 18 hours through the night. Staffing shortages are also affecting neonatal units.

Victorian Liberal senator Sarah Henderson has asked the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission trading watchdog to investigate whether Epworth Healthcare had breached consumer law via alleged conduct leading up to its decision to consider closing its maternity ward.

This week, Australia’s first female professor of obstetrics and gynaecology, Caroline de Costa, also wrote to Epworth HealthCare imploring it to keep the unit open.

The planned closure comes months after the birthing unit at Portland District Health hospital, in Victoria’s far south-west, was shut down due to severe midwife shortages.

Epworth HealthCare acting executive general manager Mark Grime said the decision to close the unit had been challenging and was driven by continued workforce shortages.

“This is a difficult and distressing proposal for our impacted patients, staff, obstetricians, paediatricians and the broader community,” he said.

St John of God Geelong and Barwon Health have confirmed they will be able to safely accommodate all Epworth Geelong patients.

Barwon Health spokeswoman Katie Bibby said the University Hospital Geelong averages about eight births each day and regularly manages periods of higher numbers of births. She said healthy mothers and their babies usually go home one to two days after birth and there were no plans to shorten postnatal stays or change the model of care.

St John of God chief executive Stephen Roberts said a significant redevelopment of the hospital’s maternity unit was underway. He confirmed a small number of reproductive services are not offered by Catholic hospitals in Australia, including terminations.

Epworth launched a consultation process following its announcement and will make a final decision about the unit’s closure within two weeks.

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