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Home | Blog | Public or private: the cost of accessing obstetrics care in hospitals

The birth of a child should always be a happy occasion. For most parents, it is. As with all medical procedures, sometimes things do not go to plan and the consequences can be devastating.

Sadly, Claire Hooker’s story reported in the Sydney Morning Herald is not unique. Claire was told that she should present to the Canberra Hospital as soon as she felt her contractions begin because she was considered a high risk pregnancy, having had 8 previous pregnancies and a history of complications with prior pregnancies. Claire also lived one hour away from Canberra Hospital. One hour can be crucial for mother and baby during labour. Claire followed the advice of her doctors but she was not admitted to hospital until the last 40 minutes of her 18 hour-labour. Claire’s labour was unnecessarily stressful and traumatic however, thankfully, her son was born with no complications.

A mother who gave birth at Wagga Wagga Base Hospital in May 2010 was distraught when she woke from an emergency caesarean section to be told that her baby had not survived. She developed a serious and devastating psychiatric condition following the mismanagement of her labour and subsequent death of her baby. She sued the hospital in negligence and, in 2016, the NSW Supreme Court ordered the Murrumbidgee Local Health District to pay over $1.7 million dollars in compensation. You can read more about that case in our blog here.

There is a growing trend of women opting to have their pregnancy managed in the public system as opposed to private. The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare data shows private hospital births accounted for 28.2% (or 79,617) of all births in 2006-07. In 2015-16, only 24.5% (or 75,881) of births were recorded in private hospitals. There are many reasons women choose the public system over private – with financial cost and access to services included in the ranks.  Given the trend, the already stretched public system will need to ensure it is adequately staffed and resourced to ensure the safety of mothers and babies.

In NSW, there are state-wide policies for the management and delivery of maternity services in public hospitals. Each local health district must have its own individual policies for the management of certain maternity services including high risk pregnancies, assisted vaginal deliveries and management of reduced fetal movements.

Within most local health districts, there is a hierarchy of care. Smaller and/or regional hospitals typically look after uncomplicated pregnancies. For a complicated or high risk pregnancy like Claire’s, women are usually referred to the bigger hospitals (also known as tertiary hospitals).  Usually, high risk pregnancies mean that women must have a higher level of care which includes more frequent check-ups and scans. For women like Claire who do not live close to tertiary hospitals, the higher frequency of monitoring comes at a huge social, personal and financial cost.

Access to appropriate health facilities and care is incredibly important and should not be denied to someone on the basis of where they live. In the Hunter New England Local Health District, a federal government-funded pilot program began in around 2013 in Moree with the aim of reducing the stress and travel associated with high risk pregnancies. The program means that, once a month, specialists including obstetricians and midwives from the John Hunter Hospital fly to Moree to consult and assess women high risk pregnancies. You can read more about the program and the enormous benefits here.

We know that obstetrics and gynaecology is one of the most litigated areas in medical negligence. Our experience tells us this is because there are two lives that need to be monitored and, sometimes, decisions are required to be made quickly.

Turn to Turner Freeman

At Turner Freeman, we have lawyers in Sydney and Newcastle who specialise in medical negligence claims. We can advise you regarding your entitlements in this complex area of law. If you or someone you know has suffered as a result of medical negligence, we encourage you to call us on 13 43 63 to speak with one of our medical law experts.

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