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Rural doctors and midwives to host critical Think Tank on rural maternity services

23 May 2023

The Rural Doctors Association of Australia (RDAA) and Australian College of Midwives (ACM) will host a critical Rural Maternity Services Think Tank in Canberra this Thursday, to discuss actualising models of care that could help prevent a growing number of rural maternity services being put on extended bypass, downgraded or closed.

Declining investment in rural maternity services by governments, combined with shortages of local health professionals including obstetricians and midwives, has seen more than 150 rural maternity units being closed over the past 20 years, with many others downgraded.

These closures have limited a woman’s choice of pregnancy and birth care as well as forcing many rural doctors with procedural skills to move elsewhere in order to continue to use their skills, and has greatly impacted the ability of midwives to work to their full scope of practice at these locations.

It has often also resulted in the loss of additional medical and primary health services in impacted communities.

“Our Think Tank comes at a critical time for rural maternity care” said RDAA President, Dr Megan Belot, who works as a GP Anaesthetist in rural Victoria, including in local maternity units in her region.

“Over the past year more rural maternity units have been bypassed due to local shortages of GP/Rural Generalist obstetricians and/or midwives, forcing rural women and their families to relocate to larger centres weeks in advance to give birth…or risk roadside births. It has also impacted the capacity of some rural hospitals to be able to respond to emergency births that may present unannounced at their facility.”

Rural doctors and midwives work extremely closely on the ground in rural and remote communities to deliver high quality maternity services.

RDAA and ACM consider it crucial to work together to develop a practical plan of action that works for all parties, in order to provide governments with recommendations that are achievable in the real world context. This week’s Think Tank is the critical first step in that process.

ACM’s Chief Midwife, Alison Weatherstone, believes innovation is key: “The current system isn’t working effectively for 2023 and is not responsive to women’s needs. We need to rethink the system instead so that mothers, babies and families receive the care they deserve close to home and to ensure midwives and doctors want to live, practice and stay in rural areas.”

The Think Tank will bring together (either face-to-face or remotely) a range of individuals with experience and/or expertise in rural maternity services. It will feature an address from the National Rural Health Commissioner, Professor Ruth Stewart and the Deputy National Rural Health Commissioner - Nursing and Midwifery, Adjunct Professor Shelley Nowlan on Rural maternity services: looking to the future, and a presentation on rural maternity workforce issues by the Chief Executive of the National Rural Health Alliance, Susanne Tegen.

Participants will then discuss the reality of the rural maternity workforce shortage, quality and safety thresholds, and optimum models of care that can work successfully in meeting these parameters.

The Think Tank will also identify elements of work to be progressed in the coming months, in the lead-up to a larger scale National Rural Maternity Services Forum involving an expanded number of key stakeholder groups to be held on 29 August 2023 (also in Canberra).

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