No end in sight for Carnarvon’s maternity crisis amid shortage of doctors and midwives

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A look of love and pure joy crosses the face of Carnarvon’s mother, Bronwyn Brankovic, as she soothes her one-month-old baby, Shae.

But beneath his joy there is a tinge of sadness.

“Carnarvon is my home. I was born in Carnarvon. My first two children were born in Carnarvon. I really hoped that Shae would be born in Carnarvon,” she said.

Unfortunately for Ms Brankovic, this was not the case.

A shortage of midwives and obstetricians has led to the cancellation of maternity services at Carnarvon’s Health Campus, which is the service hospital for the entire Gascoyne area – spanning 135,277 square kilometers and boasting a population of about 10,000 people.

Instead, pregnant women had to travel to Geraldton or Perth to give birth.

Prenatal and postnatal care is still provided locally, but women can no longer give birth at the Carnarvon Health Campus.(ABC News: Kate Ferguson)

The WA Country Health Service (WACHS) said 17 families had been affected since maternity services were canceled in February – and could not say when those services would resume.

WACHS Midwest Regional Director Rachele Ferrari said the move was necessary for patient safety.

“At this time, and due to COVID-related workforce pressures, it is more appropriate for future Carnarvon families to give birth in Geraldton or Perth, although we will continue to provide antenatal care and locally,” she said.

A Carnarvon street at sunset.
Carnarvon is the service center for the Gascoyne region of Western Australia, which has a population of around 10,000.(ABC News: Kate Ferguson )

In April, Ms Brankovic traveled 470km south from Carnarvon to Geraldton, where she stayed for three weeks to give birth to daughter Shae.

The Patient Assisted Travel Scheme, known as PATS, covers accommodation costs up to $110 per night.

But Ms Brankovic said she was unable to find suitable accommodation for less than that during the Easter school holidays and had $420 left out of her own pocket for her three-week stay.

“They like you being in Perth or Geraldton at around 36 weeks pregnant,” she said.

“When booking my accommodation, I was told $3,000.

“The PATS came to the party for most of that, but $420 is still a good chunk of a salary.”

A smiling baby with closed eyes.
Baby Shae was the first in his family not born in Carnarvon.(Provided: Bronwyn Brankovic)

A widespread problem

The WA Country Health Service said the WA region continues to face ongoing pressures on the workforce, and a state government spokesperson said they are currently looking overseas for make up for the lack of personnel.

But Dr Lesley Kuliukas, from Curtin University School of Nursing, has called on the state government to provide funding to help more regional Western Australians become midwives.

She said anyone with an undergraduate degree in the arts or sciences could study midwifery.

“If the best midwife in a rural area is someone who was born and raised there, who is very likely to stay there and provide the service for the rest of their life; pay for their accommodation, pay their flights and also give a scholarship while they study,” she said.

The housing crisis a contributor

Carnarvon Shire chairman Eddie Smith said a housing shortage in the town was also increasing pressures on staffing at the Carnarvon Health Campus.

“There is an increase in demand for housing overall, we are running out of available builders,” he said.

“The Shire is looking closely at what it can do.

“Maybe we can borrow some money and trigger some of that development.”

A man in a gray sweater standing in front of trees.
Carnarvon Shire chairman Eddie Smith said the lack of housing in the town was contributing to staffing shortages at the Carnarvon Health Campus. (ABC News: Kate Ferguson)

WA Regional Development Minister Alannah MacTiernan said the state government is considering providing homes for midwives in the WA region.

“The Housing Minister is looking at all the vacant houses we have… how can we fix them, how can we put them back on the market.”

Ms Brankovic hopes a short-term solution will soon be found and maternity services will resume in Carnarvon.

“We’re not a small town, we’re a service town and we have the resources,” she said.

“We just need people to manage those resources, so hopefully they can get that changed by the end of the year.”

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