Updated August 12, 2018 16:25:46
Queensland's Health Minister has defended the state of maternity services in rural and remote areas, while announcing an expert taskforce will review data on newborn deaths.
It comes amid community backlash over the closure of the birthing centre at Theodore in central Queensland.
Health Minister Steven Miles said data published in the Sunday Mail which appeared to show a higher mortality rate for newborns in areas without birthing services was inevitable.
"The births that occur in those towns without birthing services are by and large emergency births and by their very nature are much risker," Mr Miles said.
"Comparing those to planned and emergency births in other centres will give you a skewed perspective."
Mr Miles said Queensland was a safe place to give birth.
"If you're having a baby here in Queensland it is as safe, if not safer, than anywhere in the country or the world," he said.
He said he was re-convening a maternity taskforce to analyse the data.
"I'd like the taskforce to look at this data, because I'm worried that this data is being used to cause undue community concern," he said.
"I also think it's timely given it's three-and-a-half years since this taskforce last reported to look at anything else that can be done to support local health services to deliver more maternity services."
A Rural Doctors Association of Queensland (RDAQ) spokeswoman said a preliminary analysis of Queensland health data by its members found newborn death rates in rural hospitals or clinics without birthing units were about three times higher than in those with the units.
RDAQ president Neil Beaton said the body welcomed the government summit looking at access to maternity services in bush communities.
He said while birthing services available to rural people were "generally excellent, my understanding of the data is the death rate in small communities without a birthing service is much higher than those with".
Women staged a rally in Theodore last week to demand the return of local maternity services.
Young families moving to the town said they were shocked to find out they would have to arrange to give birth in Rockhampton, 200km away, or Biloela, 100km away.
Mr Miles said the Theodore maternity ward had been the subject of four reviews, the latest just six months ago.
"I think what that speaks to is just how determined the HHS [Health and Hospital Service] is to deliver the services that they want to deliver," he said.
"But the outcome of every single one of those reviews has been to recommend that the current level of services is what can safely be delivered in a community where there are I think about 33 maybe 35 births on average a year."
Dr Beaton said the RDAQ saw the closure of Theodore's maternity unit set a "worrying precedent" for other country towns.
"We remain concerned that we are witnessing the reversal, by stealth, of the long-standing policy of Queensland's governments to retain and revive rural birthing services in this state — though the Queensland Health Minister has assured me that this is not the case," he said.
He said while there was a decline in rural services "many years ago", governments from both sides of politics had since reversed that.
Opposition Leader Deb Frecklington said more doctors and nurses need to be encouraged to work in regional areas.
"We need to make sure that the health system is supported for the bush to actually provide areas for these health professionals to work," she said.
"If you've got a government that is intent on closing down centres like Theodore and Chinchilla, how are we going to encourage more midwives out into the bush?
"We actually increased maternity services in the bush, we had a plan to continue to increase maternity services in the bush and under a government I lead we will increase maternity services in the bush."
Mr Miles said each health and hospital service has to determine what services it can safely provide.
"In some of these towns they experience maybe a dozen, two dozen, three dozen [births] a year," he said.
"If you think about a health worker working a rotating shift a third of the time, that means they might only see a birth every month, every six weeks, and it's difficult for them to maintain their accreditation, to maintain their skills when they are experience that low a level of births."
The taskforce will likely meet in the coming weeks and will determine its workload heading forward in consultation with the Minister.
First posted August 12, 2018 13:09:42