Town rallies for health services, district tries to attract more doctors

Cries of "save our services" rang out in front of Forbes hospital on Thursday.

At a public rally outside the local hospital, President of the Forbes branch of the NSW Nurses and Midwives Association Kristin King voiced concerns health services could be "eroded".

It follows the announcement of a two-month closure of the Parkes maternity unit, with mums travelling to Forbes to give birth, due to a shortage of medical practitioners.

"How did this happen?" Ms King asked. "We need the government to step in and assist the health district to encourage doctors to come to our regional areas, and if necessary offer incentives to help keep them."

Western NSW Local Health District says rural health services across Australia face challenges recruiting medical staff and they are working hard to find ways to attract doctors.

Chief Executive Scott McLachlan acknowledged the closure of the Parkes maternity unit had been sudden, and not communicated well.

"Pausing the (Parkes maternity) service was not something we wanted to do, it was a situation we found ourselves in," Mr McLachlan said.

"I know it has been distressing for our communities, pregnant mums, and our staff, and I apologise."

Impact on Forbes

Forbes maternity faces a possible doubling in demand on its services while Parkes is closed: 150 to 160 babies are born in each hospital each year.

Options for ensuring the service can cater for demand are being worked on, Mr McLachlan said.

"We are doing everything we can to plug the gaps on the rosters and put support in place," Mr McLachlan said.

Future services

Western NSW Local Health District continues its efforts to attract doctors, talking to three or four who are interested in coming to the area, he stressed.

"We've struggled for a number of years now to maintain the service with the right number of doctors and midwives and that's not something that is going to go away any time soon," he said.

"If we were going to try and stand up services at both Parkes and Forbes with obstetricians and anaesthetists we would need around another seven to 10 doctors to come into town."

For years either Forbes or Parkes, or sometimes both, maternity units have been closed for a day or a weekend if the small number of doctors who can provide services are not available.

Mr McLachlan said the health service is talking with our midwives, our doctors and other staff about what needs to happen to make reopening a maternity service in Parkes a reality.

"We are starting to talk to the Health Council, a group of pregnant mums and mums that have recently delivered to understand how to organise a service that they are comfortable with," he said.

"We do want to stand up maternity in both towns.

There are a number of options and I do want to leave that open. There's something like 22 other models of maternity care in NSW.

Parkes' mayor Ken Keith has already spoken out against a proposal that low-risk births could continue at Parkes but "mums assessed as potentially needing medical support during labour" would have to come to Forbes.

What about other services?

Concerns at Thursday's rally included whether elective surgery would continue at Forbes hospital.

"Forbes theatre is currently averaging 640 cases over the last three years, this service is not under-utilised," Ms King said.

The health district confirmed elective surgery currently continues at Forbes hospital, and that the theatre would certainly need to remain open and staffed for Forbes to offer the current Level 3 maternity services with the capacity to do a cesarean.

"I don't see the need to change the current way surgery operates," Mr McLachlan said.

Dr Greg Whittaker is a GP, obstetrician and anaesthetist who has worked in Forbes for 20 years.

He said the current situation was causing a lot of confusion and unhappiness amongst staff and community members, with uncertainty about the future.

"All of us are just feeling that this has been done in a way that makes it worse for the few of us who are still trying to run the service," he said.

There is a health services petition available to sign at Forbes Shire Council and Forbes Services Memorial Club.

In parliament

Member for Orange Phil Donato questioned Minister for Health Brad Hazzard about the future of Parkes maternity and Forbes elective surgery in NSW Parliament.

You can watch the exchange here.