RESIDENTS in a small central Queensland town where women are being forced to travel hundreds of kilometres to give birth are battling to have their local hospital maternity ward reopened.
The people of Theodore raised more than $70,000 to help repair the maternity ward, part of a $2 million government overhaul, after the hospital was ravaged by floodwaters; only to be told by Queensland Health that planned deliveries were not coming back.
“There is a new, state-of-the-art birthing suite and operating theatre sitting unused,” 35-year-old mother and Catholic school teacher Leanne Suttle said, referring to the maternity unit completed in 2016 but now deemed only to be used for emergency cases.
“It’s a complete waste of money.
“When the hospital was open for delivery thirty-three women a year were having their babies in Theodore.”
Townspeople proudly say that over the past four decades more than a thousand babies have been birthed in their hospital.
However the closure of maternity services is not a new concern for people in rural and regional Australia.
Between 1995 and 2005, more than 130 rural maternity units closed nationwide and 36 out of 84 units have closed throughout Queensland.
Many of the closures were hospitals that have less than 100 births per year.
A “Save Theodore Maternity Services” petition claims the consequence of not having a fully operational maternity unit include significant financial burden, separation of families, risk of travelling in labour, increased risk of roadside births, increased psychological stress and chance of neonatal mortality and morbidity.
Young Theodore mum Liza McIntyre said the distances that expectant mothers had to travel to give birth posed the greatest risk.
“The risk of having a baby on the side of the road increases,” Mrs McIntyre said.
She travelled to Rockhampton, 200km away to give birth to her two sons and, after her second birth, had to stay two months in Rockhampton.
“If you go into labour in the middle of the night, your midwife is not going to drive to Biloela – the nearest town with a hospital 100 kilometres away – they have families too.”
On August 6, residents marched through Theodore to protest the closure of their local maternity service chanting “we want choices”.
The aim was to send a message to health officials that the community would not go down without a fight, and would support local doctors, midwives and nursing staff.
However, Central Queensland Hospital and Health Service’s chief executive Steve Williamson told residents, “It’s not about a budget or finance. It’s about safe services. Doing the right thing for mums and bubs – being able to provide … specialist care or emergency intervention that could include an emergency caesarean operation.”
One of the reasons the Theodore maternity service has closed is the belief that in providing maternity services in rural Australia there must be 24-hour on-site surgical and anaesthetic capability.
Research demonstrates that births for low-risk women in small rural and remote units are safe, with some showing more favourable outcomes than births in larger, often metropolitan hospitals.
Mrs McIntrye has confidence in Theodore’s doctor and midwives available, and believes local health services should be maintained not cut.
“You want to know that if you present to a hospital that they are going to look after you and the baby – and that they’ve got the trained personnel and the equipment to make decisions,” she said.
“It’s not a step forward for rural health. That hospital has been birthing babies for the last forty or fifty years, and in 2018 they are now not letting you.”
The depletion of rural health services is also of concern to pro-life campaigners opposed to Queensland’s proposed laws to legalise abortion.
In a presentation to the National Summit on Abortion Law Reform 2018, held in Brisbane in March, Dr Alexandra Doig, a Brisbane GP and specialist in healthcare resource allocation, explained why public funding of abortions was an inappropriate use of expenditure, particularly in rural Australia.
“I argue that there are far greater areas of need, particularly in rural and remote health,” Dr Doig, who has practised in regional Queensland, said.
“Particularly when basic services are not readily available to a significant proportion of the Queensland population.
“On average, (rural residents) don’t enjoy the same high standard of health and wellbeing as those who live in cities or have the same access to health services and health-related infrastructure.”
Mrs Suttle agrees changing the law to legalise abortion would only take money away from solving rural health issues and put more pressure on rural women.
“Any sort of changes they decide to make to (abortion) legislation is going to put pressure on rural services. And the more rural services they take away from us out here the worse results they will have for women living in the bush,” she said.
“We already deal with a lot.”