Time to deliver hospital's midwife-led maternity unit
The chronic shortage of midwives has been public knowledge since 2008. So why, 12 months on, are posts not being filled, asks Lisa Smyth
At the moment, mums-to-be in towns like Downpatrick, Ardglass and Kilkeel have to go to Belfast or Craigavon to give birth, but a new maternity unit at the Downe Hospital will spell an end to the arduous journey.
However, it has emerged that the South Eastern Trust is experiencing difficulties recruiting the eight midwives it requires to run the ward - raising questions about when the facilities will open.
According to the Royal College of Midwives and the Trust, the problem at the Downe Hospital has arisen because of the unique nature of the new ward.
As a midwifery-led unit, women will be helped through their labour by midwives alone - meaning the midwives working there must have at least two to three years of experience to ensure the safety of both mum and baby.
Elaine Madden, head of midwifery at the South Eastern Health and Social Care Trust, explained: "We are putting in a senior midwife at sister level on every shift and we want to open with the right staff to make sure it's a success. We don't want to compromise the safety of mothers and babies in Downpatrick."
A shortage of midwives in Northern Ireland is nothing new - in September last year the Belfast Telegraph revealed the problem was so severe that midwives from Scotland were being drafted in to work in hospitals in Northern Ireland to plug the gap, while retired midwives and those on maternity leave were also being encouraged to return to work.
So why - when it was clear how bad the problem was over a year ago - is there still an issue finding enough midwives to fill posts?
Certainly, the Health Minister cannot be accused of not recognising and working to resolve the situation.
Breedagh Hughes from the Royal College of Midwives (RCM) has gone on record on a number of occasions to praise Michael McGimpsey for his action - after consulting with RCM he increased the number of midwife training posts across Northern Ireland.
However, the recruitment and training process will take two years to complete so it will be next year before the new staff will take up employment.
Even then, newly qualified midwives would not be suitable candidates to fill the vacant posts at Downe Hospital.
But, as Ms Hughes explains, working in the Downe Hospital would be perfect for midwives with experience who are looking for a new and fulfilling challenge - although she acknowledged that a fear of the unknown could be the reason why the positions are not being filled.
"All we can do is encourage experienced midwives to go for the jobs at the Downe and by moving on they would be creating vacancies for newly qualified midwives to gain invaluable experience," she said.
The Trust has given an assurance that it has begun a second round of recruitment aimed at finding staff who are experienced enough to take up the remaining seven vacant posts at Northern Ireland's first midwifery-led unit.
Unfortunately it is not in a position yet to say when the ward will open. Until it does, state-of-the-art facilities in Downpatrick will remain empty, while the likes of Craigavon and the Royal Victoria Jubilee Maternity Hospital struggle to cater for hundreds of mums and babies who could be cared for closer to home.
And with the Royal looking at discharging new mums within six hours of giving birth to help it cope with demand, getting the maternity unit at Downe up and running is more important than ever.