The number of expectant mothers transferred to hospitals outside Waikato has doubled over the past three years.
Some mothers have been transferred as far away as Invercargill and Dunedin to give birth at a cost of $8000 to $11,000 for air transfer alone, Official Information Act figures show.
Others have been moved to Tauranga, Rotorua, and Auckland because Waikato beds were full.
While no Waikato patients have been transferred to Australia since 2009, it is an option open to New Zealand residents should all of the country's neonatal intensive care units become full.
In 2010, 18 expectant mothers had to be transferred out of Waikato. That number climbed to 41 in 2011.
Last year 33 expectant mothers were transferred out, 13 of whom were sent to Tauranga. Two mums had to go to Dunedin and Invercargill.
Waikato houses one of six level 3 (intensive care) newborn units throughout New Zealand. The others are at Auckland, Middlemore, Wellington, Christchurch and Dunedin.
Babies admitted to these nurseries are the most intensive, expensive and complex cases and include infants requiring high levels of observation and respiratory support.
Last December the Times reported that Waikato's NICU was "over capacity", with 27 patients coming through when the normal capacity was 17.
Dr Phil Weston, a Waikato District Health Board neonatal paediatrician, said if beds were full there was no other option but to find a bed elsewhere for the mother and her expected baby.
"It is a regular occurrence for the safety of the baby," he said.
They tried to get a mother into the closest NICU first. "But it is not uncommon for transfers to occur across a long distance. This is a factor of New Zealand's widely spaced geography."
While the DHB could not give detailed data on how much all the transfers cost, examples show it is not cheap.
Air transfers can cost between $2700 and $10,000, while return trips by ambulance to Auckland cost around $742.
Dr Weston said while each NICU was supposed to have enough beds for their population, numbers could fluctuate "rapidly" on any given day.
He said clinicians had to make judgements on whether keeping the mother in Waikato would place the baby at risk due to excessive work load.
Waikato's NICU has seven nurseries, five of which are level 3 nurseries, with state-of-the-art incubators and respiratory equipment. The entire capacity for the NICU is 41.
About 1000 newborns a year go through Waikato Hospital's NICU.
TRANSFERS CAN BE DAUNTING - MUM
Having to give birth in a strange town away from her family wasn't what Hamilton mother Kylee Roe had envisaged when told she was expecting her third child.
But when the scans suggested young Oliver might be underweight and getting sick a month out from his due date, Ms Roe's doctor wanted to induce labour. The only trouble was there weren't any neo-natal intensive care beds available at Waikato Hospital.
"He said, ‘We're going to look at flying you to Dunedin'," Ms Roe said.
"I freaked out because I didn't want to go to Dunedin."
Eventually, just three days before Christmas, Ms Roe was transferred to Tauranga Hospital where she was induced the following day.
"It was actually really horrible so close to Christmas. I think the hardest thing was just being in a town where I knew no one."
While her partner and sister went with her, Ms Roe said she missed her midwife.
"But Tauranga Hospital was amazing."
Ms Roe said she felt for women who were transferred to hospitals further away to give birth.
"I think it would be extremely daunting - especially if it was your first time. To build up a relationship with your midwife and then to be told ‘no this is not how we are going to do it - we're are going to fly you down to a town where you know no-one'."
However, Ms Roe understood why transfers were necessary. "If [the NICU] is full there's nothing they can do. They needed Ollie out, so they had to send me to another hospital. At the end of the day it's bubby's health that's more important than how we feel."
- © Fairfax NZ News
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