There are fears the temporary suspension of birthing services at one Riverland hospital will lead to the permanent end of baby deliveries in town, continuing the trend of dwindling medical services in regional South Australia.

Key points:

  • Birthing services at the Waikerie Health Service have been suspended until March
  • The local health network says it’s doing everything it can to support women expected to go into labour during the shutdown
  • The district’s health advisory council says without more midwives it fears the service will close

The Riverland Mallee Coorong Local Health Network (RMCLHN) chief executive Wayne Champion announced yesterday birthing services at the Waikerie Health Service would be cancelled until March.

Five women who planned to give birth at the hospital will need to find an alternative location.

Meanwhile, women in labour who present to the health service will be told they may be transferred to another facility.

Mr Champion said an “unplanned shortage” of nursing and midwifery staff lead to the suspension.

There are currently three staff and an agency midwife working a 1.8 full-time equivalent load at the service.

Mr Champion said at least five or six staff were needed to sustain a 24/7 roster.

Wayne Champion said discussions were underway with other birthing service providers to assist patients.(ABC Riverland: Anita Ward)

Shared care antenatal and postnatal community services will continue at the health service.

“We are working closely with MEDSTAR, SA Ambulance Service, Women’s and Children’s Hospital, Riverland General Hospital and Loxton Hospital to ensure all women have access to safe birthing services,” Mr Champion said.

“The service has been short-staffed for sometime … we will continue to work hard to fill the roster required to provide safe birthing services for the future.”

Recruitment ideas unsuccessful

Waikerie Health Advisory Council (HAC) presiding member Justin Loffler said he heard “whispers” last week, but the situation had been building for at least five years.

Justin Loffler said he was worried the temporary suspension of birthing services would spell the end of deliveries in the town.(ABC News: Brittany Evins)

“When I actually took that phone call it was shocking,” he said.

“Because the issue has been around for so long, we’ve thrashed through a lot of ideas to try to get scholarships or something like that out.

There were 27 births at the service last year.

Mr Loffler said the small number of births was leading to a lack of opportunities for local midwives.

“You might only see a birth once every two or three months depending on what shift you’re on,” he said.

“If someone is trained to give birth to babies, that’s what they want to do.

“From a midwife’s point of view, I can see why they’re not that keen, but it’s really disappointing for our community.”

Writing on the wall for Waikerie births?

While it is only a temporary suspension at this point in time, Mr Loffler said he was worried the service would not return to the Riverland community.

“If we get all three staff back on track and back on roster, then we can possibly continue to sustain it on that knife edge for somewhat longer, but we ultimately need more staff.”

Mr Champion said recruitment discussions are ongoing.

He said he was also hopeful border restrictions would be eased soon to allow more agency staff to come from interstate.

The local Health Advisory Council says it’s hopeful birthing services will return to Waikerie after March, but it’s worried they may not.(ABC News: Gregor Salmon)

“We’re [also] exploring if we can put in place a combined staffing model across Berri, Loxton and Waikerie as a single pool of staff,” he said.

“Even that would struggle to solve this problem because all of the sites are a bit short staffed and of course, Waikerie’s across the threshold where it’s not safe to continue the service.”

Chaffey MP Tim Whetstone questioned whether that proposal was “code for turning three birthing suites into two”.

“If you let it go, it’s gone … and I will not let it go.”

He said he would talk to the health and education ministers about formulating a plan to attract young people into the health workforce.