Midwife shortage at major hospitals 'emergency situation'
Understaffed maternity units levels at many of the country's biggest hospitals are an emergency situation, the New Zealand College of Midwives says.
The cry for help came as Capital & Coast District Health Board revealed it was on a recruitment drive to find seven full-time midwives for Wellington Hospital's maternity unit.
However, college chief executive, Karen Guilliland, said midwifery staffing levels were even worse at Waikato Hospital where 22 midwives were needed.
Auckland and Counties Manukau DHBs were also struggling to keep up with demand for midwifery services.
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"It's been known for many, many years that there are not enough midwives in the hospitals. Because of this, more and more work has been put on the community midwives.
"Between them, the [hospital and community] midwives have tried to manage that. But, now, we simply have an emergency situation where tertiary hospitals haven't got enough midwives," Guilliland said.
New Zealand Nurses' Organisation spokeswoman, Hilary Graham-Smith, also recognised the lack of midwives was a widespread issue.
"It's an issue that's been experienced by most of the larger maternity units ... so there are similar shortages in other DHBs.
"A number of our larger hospitals are experiencing difficulties in retaining and recruiting midwives," Graham-Smith said.
Guilliand said that while enough midwives were being trained, their careers were far shorter.
"We're training enough but they only last six years. They used to last 15 years. They love the job, but it's become a job that you can't retain staff because of the working conditions."
At present, Wellington Hospital has about 97 staff in the unit, but needed about seven full-time midwives to address the shortfall.
On average, between eight and 10 babies were born in the hospital each day – figures that have remained "consistent" over the past two years.
Capital & Coast DHB executive director of nursing and midwifery, Andrea McCance, said it was drawing on the services of agency midwives in the interim.
"We've increased our casual pool, so we've got probably about 34 registered midwives and they all have a minimum of five years' experience," McCance said.
"We actually got six graduate midwives who started last month, which is great for our future workforce."
The DHB was also casting the net wider than New Zealand by trying to attract British midwives to make the move to Wellington.
"Whilst we'd rather grow them locally, we're doing everything we can do just to make sure we've got that adequate number of midwives on staff," McCance said.
"We still aim to give high-quality, safe care."
Immigration New Zealand said midwife was not an occupation currently on its immediate or long term shortage lists.
It was on the long term skill shortage list from April 2005 until March 2014, a spokesman confirmed.
The midwifery shortage has come to light after first-time mother, Mary-Lou Harris, publicly criticised the level of care she received at Wellington Hospital's post-natal unit earlier this month.
The RNZ staffer said she felt 'unsupported' and 'alone' due to a lack of overnight midwives on duty, with too many casual registered nurses on to plug the gaps.
Harris' request to have her partner stay overnight on the ward to provide support was refused and eventually elected to discharge herself early to nurse at home.
Harris said she intended to file a formal complaint about her experience and hoped to meet with DHB officials to discuss the issue.
McCance has issued an apology to Harris and planned to investigate staffing levels in place during her stay.