Thousands at risk in hospital plan, says doctor

SHUTTING down six maternity hospitals outside Dublin would put thousands of women’s lives at risk unless they were replaced by proper midwifery services, a leading obstetrician warned yesterday.

A Government task force is recommending that up to a dozen maternity hospitals be closed as part of a major reform package to allow the appointment of 1,200 new consultants required under EU rules.

Senior health figures say the six maternity hospitals most at risk of closing are: Tralee, Clonmel, Kilkenny, Wexford, Ballinasloe and Portlaoise or Mullingar.

But Institute of Obstetricians and Gynaecology (IOG) chairman Dr John Gallagher said this was unfair to women unless alternative maternity units were set up first and massive amounts of money was pumped into road infrastructure.

"Thousands of women's lives would still be put at risk if a good midwifery delivery service was not also provided in the six maternity hospitals they are proposing to close," Dr Gallagher said.

Three of the proposed closures Clonmel, Kilkenny and Wexford are in the South Eastern Health Board region and Dr Gallagher is a former chairman of that board.

The four maternity hospitals in the South East, including Waterford, deliver 6,000 babies every year.

"There would be World War Three if the Government tried to close any of these maternity hospitals because each of them is already full to capacity and there is nowhere to send the 1,500 women who have babies in them every year," Dr Gallagher said.

Alternative maternity units would have to built in the proposed expanded regional hospitals before the Government could even consider shutting down any one of the 15 maternity hospitals outside Dublin and Cork, Dr Gallagher said.

Obstetrician Mary McCaffrey, who works in Tralee General Hospital's maternity unit, is also opposed to any move to close their service.

Thousands of high-risk mothers with medical difficulties would be forced to travel from south and west Kerry to Cork city to have their babies if this plan goes ahead, Dr McCaffrey said.

"High-risk patients would still be put at risk even if they put in alternative midwifery services in Tralee because midwives do not have the expertise to deal with them," she said.

As the Kerry representative on the Irish Hospitals Consultants Association (IHCA) board, Dr McCaffrey believes the new maternity unit planned for Cork could not cope with the 1,500 extra women coming from Kerry every year.

"We have spent the last five years improving the maternity services in Tralee and increased the number of births by 40%. This move would be a backward step for women," she said.

However, the Southern Health Board said there were no plans at the moment to shut down the maternity unit at Tralee General Hospital.

The proposal to close six maternity hospitals is contained in the Task Force on Medical Manpower report which will be given to Health Minister Micheál Martin next month.

The minister's spokeswoman said he would not make any comment on the draft report until he had received a final copy of it. "The contents and recommendations could be changed by the time the report gets to the minister's desk," she said.

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