‘Difficult day’: Geelong maternity unit to close within two months

The Epworth maternity unit in Geelong will close within two months after the private hospital was unable to fill major staff shortages.

The possible shutdown of the service was first flagged last year, distressing patients and local obstetricians, who hoped a resolution would be found during a months-long consultation period.

Dr Nisha Khot fears women in the Geelong area seeking procedures, including terminations, will face challenges because these treatments are not available at Catholic health provider St John of God.Credit:Justin McManus

However, Epworth Healthcare confirmed on Thursday it had made the “difficult decision” to close the maternity unit on March 31.

The Geelong and Surf Coast region has experienced a boom of births as more families move into the area. But the Epworth has been unable to fill huge holes in its maternity roster.

“At this time, we have 14 vacant full-time equivalent roles across our maternity service. That is a 44 per cent vacancy rate,” said Cameron Fuller, Epworth’s group chief executive.

He said that some Epworth Geelong midwifery staff had offered to increase their hours, but “even with these potential additions, we would still have a 35 per cent vacancy”.

There are about 100 women booked to have their babies at Epworth Geelong who were due to give birth after the closure. The Epworth has begun contacting all of its patients who are due from March 1.

Birth rates in Geelong are well above the state average. Last year, the Geelong local government area had the fifth-highest birth rate in Victoria and the highest birth rate outside metropolitan Melbourne, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics.

Obstetrician Kara Thompson whose clinic OGB Surf Coast opened rooms at Epworth last year, told The Age earlier this week that it made no sense to cut crucial health services when Geelong was one of the country’s fastest-growing regions.

“It is not an exaggeration to say this will be a tragedy for a generation of women,” she said.

Fuller said that Barwon Health, which operates University Hospital Geelong, and St John of God, a Catholic private hospital, say they have capacity to accommodate additional births that were previously planned at Epworth Geelong.

However, obstetrician Nisha Khot feared the closure of the only private secular maternity unit in Geelong, would mean women seeking procedures, including terminations, tubal ligation and other methods of contraception post-birth, would face increasing challenges as such treatments are not available at Geelong’s St John of God Hospital.

“These are really heartbreaking decisions to make and to not have those choices available when you’re making such a difficult, life-changing decision is simply not acceptable.”

Fuller said Epworth HealthCare tried to recruit new midwives from the community and overseas, but was still short of people to work at night and in the birth suite.

“This is a current issue and predicted to continue in the medium and longer term,” he said.

“We appreciate this will be a very upsetting and difficult day for many of our patients, staff, doctors and the community.

“We thank everyone who provided feedback and suggestions during the consultation period, including patients, staff, obstetricians, paediatricians, GPs and the local community. We have considered many proposals and assessed a number of possible scenarios.”

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