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National forum to drive solutions to rural maternity crisis

28 August 2023

A national forum tomorrow (Tuesday) at Parliament House in Canberra will bring together 70 stakeholders and experts in rural maternity care – as well as Commonwealth and state health departments – to drive solutions to improve and sustain access to safe and quality maternity care in rural and remote Australia.

The National Rural Maternity Services Forum is being hosted by the National Rural Health Commissioner, Adjunct Professor Ruth Stewart, and Deputy National Rural Health Commissioner (Nursing and Midwifery), Adjunct Professor Shelley Nowlan.

It follows a Rural Maternity Services Think Tank hosted by the Australian College of Midwives (ACM) and Rural Doctors Association of Australia (RDAA) in May.
RDAA President, Dr Megan Belot, said the focus of the Forum is on achieving practical solutions to the crisis impacting rural maternity services.

“We want to stop the closures of rural maternity services and periods of extended bypass that continue to impact not just young families, but whole communities, across rural Australia” said Dr Belot, who works as a GP Anaesthetist in rural Victoria, including in maternity units in her region.

“The risks to rural mothers and babies are enormous when there is no local birthing service, the costs to rural families are huge, and there are also significant indirect costs to rural communities – because when a local maternity unit is closed, doctors and midwives leave town too and other local health services are often lost.”

ACM’s Chief Midwife, Alison Weatherstone, agrees that rural maternity care requires re-prioritisation.  

“Inadequate investment in rural maternity services by governments, combined with shortages of local health professionals, has seen more than 150 rural maternity units being closed over the past 20 years and many others downgraded” Ms Weatherstone said.

“Now is the time for innovative approaches to retain, sustain and rebuild maternity care in rural Australia. We need to provide rural maternity care models that work so mothers, babies and families can receive the care they deserve close to home.

“This means significantly increasing access to midwifery led continuity models of care for all women as well as investing in the workforce with ongoing education, training and incentives. Importantly, we need to attract people into midwifery and also to live and work in rural and remote areas.”

The priority of the Forum is to develop an agreed set of practical solutions for government and health service consideration in order to improve (and sustain) access to safe and quality maternity care for women and babies living in rural and remote Australia.

This will include a key focus on supporting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women – and women of all cultural backgrounds – to access culturally safe rural maternity care.

“Without pre-empting the recommendations of the Forum, addressing workforce shortages across rural maternity care will be a crucial area of discussion for us tomorrow” Dr Belot said. 

“Multi-disciplinary healthcare teams are critical to the sustainability of rural maternity services. We need more Rural Generalist obstetricians and anaesthetists – who are well-trained and supported, and have strong links to consultant specialists – working closely alongside our midwife colleagues to provide high quality care that respects the birthing choices of women and their families.

“Tomorrow’s Forum is incredibly important in setting in place a concrete pathway to build our rural maternity workforce, and through that a sustainable network of multidisciplinary maternity care with a known carer across rural and remote Australia into the future…because that is what rural women, their babies and families want and deserve.”

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