December 3, 2023

How do you sustain maternity services when the number of births is going down? That’s the conundrum facing the Northern Health Trust in County Antrim where a public consultation process is due to look at the future of maternity care in the area. Balancing the needs of mother and baby is never easy, but there’s a question mark over the sustainability of services at the Trust’s Causeway Hospital in Coleraine. The hospital has issues with staffing and recruitment, but the key factors are an increase in the number of older residents and a sharp decline in the number of births at the Causeway.

An NHS maternity unit is considered small if it handles fewer than 3,500 deliveries per year, but this year the Causeway will see fewer than 900 babies born.

It’s making the current arrangements for maternity services unsustainable, and the Northern Trust is exploring two options: (1) move all consultant-led births to Antrim and keep a small midwifery-led unit in Causeway; or (2) simply move all maternity services to Antrim. Consultant obstetrician Dr David Morgan says standing still is not an option: “The important thing about those two options is that we believe they are clinically deliverable in a short space of time, and we have to be realistic about what we can actually hope to provide with the resources and the constraints that we have.” A mile from the Causeway Hospital, young mums were pushing buggies as they shopped in Coleraine town centre. There was strong support for maintaining maternity services in Coleraine. Heather Shannon gave birth to daughter Hallie seven months ago, and she had to travel to Antrim for the delivery: “It was horrible being stuck in Antrim, away from Coleraine and away from my family. It’s not nice not being close to your family when you’re having a baby.” Friends Rebecca Dick and Tara McCurry were enjoying a stroll together. Rebecca says: “I just think the maternity services have to stay in Coleraine. One hundred per cent. It’s the only option for people who don’t drive and can’t get to Antrim, especially if you’re in labour or if there’s something wrong.” Tara agrees: “People who have no transport, they’ll be panicking if they can’t get there on time or if they have to get an ambulance.” It’s just three months since Hannah Scott delivered baby Madeleine. She lives just two minutes from Causeway Hospital and wants to see it retain all its maternity services: “If you have any concerns or problems during the night you’re not going to drive for an hour to get to Antrim, but because I live to close to the Causeway I knew that if I had any worries then I was more likely to be able to call in.”

The Northern Trust, though, has a difficult problem. It says its maternity services resources are spread too thinly between hospitals in Coleraine and Antrim. A 14-week public consultation will be held before any permanent changes are made, and utimately any decision on the future of maternity services in Coleraine and Antrim is likely to need ministerial approval. At the moment, however, Northern Ireland does not have a functioning executive government in Stormont, and therefore it does not a Health Minister to rule on the issue.

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