There is probably no more frequent issue that is raised with country MPs than that of a constituent lamenting the fact we can no longer support childbirth in many of our country towns. The issue is complex, but by no means is it only affecting the small regional towns.
Gone are the days when local GPs delivered all the babies in the district, and often they were so permanent in nature, their skill spanned multiple generations of the same family. Over time, we have seen the gradual withdrawal of service back to major regional centres and cities where clinical standards can be ensured, where surgical intervention can be done safely if required and most importantly, where we have a medical workforce that can guarantee a stable 24/7 service to the community.
However, in 2022, with two consecutive budgets posting multi-billion dollar surpluses, we are seeing services impacted in the bigger regional towns. Towns such as Carnarvon, where for the time being the WA Country Health Service cannot deliver a baby, requiring expectant mums and their families to travel almost 500 kilometres south to Geraldton, or further to Perth – an outcome that is not ideal for the family nor does it help the regional hospital in Geraldton, which is already under immense service demand and experiencing workforce problems of their own.
The McGowan Government’s response to every issue the Opposition has raised in the last two years is ‘you do realise that we are in a pandemic?’. Pandemic or not, this issue was well known long before COVID-19 was something that any of us could spell, let alone understand.
Last week at Budget Estimates, the Minister for Health Amber-Jade Sanderson was asked by the National-Liberal Opposition to quantify the extent of our workforce shortages in our health system. Instead of answering a question that any Health Minister should have expected, she repeatedly told the Parliament and the people of Western Australia to put it on notice. A process that will take longer than a month to get an answer, if one is even forthcoming.
The week before, another McGowan Government Minister exclaimed there is no ‘rule book’ for pandemic response – a proposition that should be challenged. Our State Government has had more time and more money than almost any other Government in the world to prepare and respond to COVID-19. In fact, I ask them to find a Government that has been in a more advantageous position throughout this pandemic.
Through early closure of our borders, a position that was supported by the Opposition, to the billions in dollars that have been generated from an economy fueled by mining and agriculture that has continued to largely function when others stumbled, Western Australia is the envy of the world.
How then, do we find ourselves in a State where executives of the WA Country Health Service in private emails to their workforce warn of ‘imminent service failure’ at regional hospitals yet when asked about the vulnerability of our health system, they have no answers.
There is an old saying about living in the bush: “People don’t leave country towns because the roads are no good, they leave for better health and better educational opportunity.”
To this day, nothing could be truer. As a father of three young children, their health and education matter more than anything else. Country people are a pragmatic bunch. They often don’t fight hard enough for what they deserve. Could you imagine telling someone living in Maylands that they needed to travel to Kalgoorlie to have their baby and when they complain, you remind them that we live in pandemic times.
In February 2019 (one year before COVID-19 was a thing), I wrote to then Health Minister Roger Cook, imploring him to back a plan by the Geraldton Universities Centre (GUC) to train regional midwifery students in our regions. 75 percent of our midwives work in the metropolitan and South West region, leaving the vast remainder of the State with the rest. The GUC plan was sound, training country students for country jobs.
The plan never got off the ground because the McGowan Government never supported the training places that were needed for students to gain experience in public hospitals across WA. Minister Cook went further and advised me that in 2018, there was 102 students who applied for 46 graduate places, demonstrating that we were in fact training too many midwives in WA.
Fast-forward three years and we are now telling mums-to-be to travel almost 500 kilometres from their family, their home, their support network and their community because we have a crisis in our health system.
Telling West Australians that the Government has grown the health workforce by 18.7% since 2017 whilst those services face ‘imminent service failure’ does not pass the pub test. The new Health Minister said last week that she is a massive supporter of birthing options for mothers. Well Minister, for regional mothers – having an option at all would be a good first step.