Closure of small maternity units a possibility

The health minister has confirmed that the closure of small maternity units is being considered.

However, Leo Varadkar did accept it was probably a bit early to be talking about closing units amid a review of all maternity services across the State.

“But I also want to make it clear that it is not ruled out; that it is part of what needs to be considered,” he said.

The issue was raised at a meeting of the Oireachtas Health Committee by Sinn Féin TD Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin.

Mr Ó Caoláin said it was very premature for the minister to “speculate” on the closure of units — a number of measures needed to be considered before such a step was contemplated.

He said the recruitment situation at Midland Regional Hospital, Portlaoise, was only now being seriously addressed.

“Women don’t want to be displaced and herded into factory production, over-centralised settings, which are clearly lacking in the compassion, care, time, and attention they would deserve,” he said.

“Mr Varadkar said the situation was not just about staffing — bigger centres were more used to dealing with rare cases.”

Sometimes the smaller units did not pick up those cases and refer them to the specialist centre, he added.

HSE director general Tony O’Brien, said 40% of babies born last year were born in large maternity units.

“I don’t think there should be a suggestion that, if there were to be a centralisation into larger units that would be equated with a downgrading of level of compassion and care,” he said.

Earlier, Mr Varadkar said many aspects of the Health Information and Quality Authority’s (Hiqa) report disturbed him.

He said: “I am ashamed at the manner in which patients were treated without respect, care, and compassion when they most needed it by members of my own profession and other professions.”

Mr O’Brien said Midland Regional Hospital was now on a path to being an “excellent” hospital as part of a wider group. However, in the light of the report, he had decided to have an external investigator look at issues of concern.

“Many of the issues which arise in Portlaoise aren’t just about resources or the quality of clinical care but about the human and compassionate care that was or was not provided.

“Accordingly, a separate investigation will examine this matter,” he said.

The committee will meet HSE officials again next Tuesday.

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