Editor's Viewpoint: Poots right to open up maternity debate
As Health Minister Edwin Poots works towards a reconfigured health estate in the province, with fewer hospitals, each offering a much more comprehensive suite of services, it also makes sense for him to try to achieve greater efficiency across the sector.
Hospitals are expensive places in which to treat people and in an ideal world would be used only for those with the most acute needs. That seems to be part of his rationale for encouraging more women to have their babies in midwife-led units rather than the more costly consultant-led setting.
Maternity experts have long argued that midwife-led units - indeed even expectant mothers' own homes - are perfectly suitable for uncomplicated births. They point out that having pre- and post-natal care, as well as the actual births, with the same team of professionals is a sensible way forward. Some even go further saying it is the best way as it ensures a continuity of care for the mother and baby.
But the arguments are not as widely accepted by mothers-to-be as those experts - and Mr Poots - would hope. Today we report how an expensive state-of-the-art midwife-led unit at the Downe Hospital - one of only two such units in the province - is only dealing with an average of two births a week. Compare that to the maternity units at the Ulster or Royal Hospitals in Belfast where thousands of babies are delivered annually.
Mothers-to-be, understandably, want reassurance that if a sudden emergency occurs during labour, all the services required for both mother and baby are immediately on hand. That is why so many opt for the consultant-led service. Another reason is the practice of giving birth by caesarean section which obviously requires surgical and associated medical expertise. At the very least Mr Poots has brought this important subject into the open and this should be followed by a proper debate in which mothers-to-be are given all the facts so that they can make informed judgements on where to have their babies.