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Tough pill to swallow

Lumsden Maternity Centre practice manager Deirdre Kennedy (left) and Northern Southland Health Company chairwoman Carrie Adams inside a birthing room at the Lumsden Maternity Centre. PHOTO: Claire Kaplan

The Northern Southland Health Company has lost its battle to retain birthing services and postnatal stays at the Lumsden Maternity Centre.

Now the province awaits to see if Te Anau will retain its status as an operational base for air emergency helicopter services, prompting concerns about the clinical risk posed to pregnant women.

In April, news broke that the Ministry of Health and ACC released a request for proposals that would have consolidated air ambulance services into one contract for the entire South Island. 

However Te Anau was eliminated as a proposed base of operations, prompting public outrage among many that air services would lose precious time by being based out of Queenstown.

Northern Southland Health Company chairwoman Carrie Adams said it was "absolutely concerned" about losing Te Anau as a base of operations following the loss of birthing services available in Lumsden.

"To further that, we'd love to know what acknowledgement that that decision had as far as bearing on the DHB's decision [surrounding Lumsden]."

Lumsden, along with Te Anau, Tuatapere, Wanaka, and Ranfurly, will become "Maternal and Child Hubs," or antenatal and postnatal support units that don't provide birthing services except for urgent situations.

The DHB says its independent advice from midwifery consultants indicated there was "no additional clinical risk" to turning Lumsden into a hub as long as it implemented required mitigations such as preparing Te Anau and Lumsden for emergency birthing if required. 

However the Fiordland Medical Centre is experiencing its own growth spurt in patient demand, leaving medical staff concerned how they'll cope with the possibility of covering emergency births.

Fiordland Medical Centre staff say that in the past 12 months, doctors saw 12.5% more patients than the previous year. 

GP Paula King said space was becoming increasingly precious, and a third nurse was being brought on this spring. 

"Increasingly limited space, a helicopter service that's under threat... Banking on us being able to fly women out when it goes wrong is actually no longer something that we can really rely on," Dr King said.

Te Anau Community Board chairwoman Rachel Cockburn and Southland District Councillor Ebel Kremer, who is also on the Northern Southland Medical Trust, both expressed deep concern about the increased clinical risk to mothers because of the increased driving for mothers and the possibility of losing Te Anau as a helicopter base.

More than half of the 216 submissions the DHB received specifically addressed concerns about safety issues including increased travel and time.

Southern DHB executive director of strategy, primary and community Lisa Gestro said the board couldn't say anything specific regarding the helicopter tender process but continued to work with the Ministry of Health.

"However, we have had concerns that there is a lack of maternity infrastructure in Te Anau, despite it being a significant population centre. This informed our decision to establish a maternal and child hub in Te Anau… to ensure there are facilities that are equipped and available for urgent births, provide greater infrastructure support for LMC midwives and are well integrated into other health services in that community."

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