Parents across the Melton borough have reacted with dismay to the likely closure of the town’s St Mary’s Birth Centre.
Those who are planning families face the prospect in future of having their babies 20 miles away in Leicester, while mums who have used the unit are lamenting the loss of a service and midwifery team which gave them such valuable personal support at all stages of their pregnancy and afterwards too.
The future of St Mary’s was threatened as long ago as March 2010 because of staff shortages, but hundreds of residents mounted a Facebook campaign to help keep it going.
And then three years ago, the University Hospitals of Leicester NHS Trust announced plans to centralise the county’s maternity services in the city to make them more cost-effective and accessible.
The Melton birth unit was no longer seen as cost-effective and should be closed, the trust said, because it was way down on the 350 to 500 annual births it needed to remain viable.
There was talk of a consultation into the proposals, which would also include the building of a new maternity hospital in Leicester and a possible new stand-alone midwifery birth centre, probably at Leicester General Hospital.
But nothing was set in stone until the recent government announcement of £450 million funding for Leicester hospitals, which the trust say will pay for the reorganised services and likely accelerate the demise of Melton’s St Mary’s Birth Centre.
The Thorpe Road unit, which is predominantly for low risk women, is midwifery-led and has eight beds on its postnatal in-patient ward.
It was the trust’s only service to get a rating of ‘good’ across all five measurements, of Safe, Effective, Caring, Responsive and Well-Led, in the most recent Care Quality Commission inspection report from March last year.
Someone who is in a prime position to evaluate the unit is Melton mum Stacey Ringrose, who has had three children there - Summer (eight), Layton (six) and five-year-old Jenson - and who is expecting again and hopes to have this baby there, too, in February.
She told the Melton Times: “It’s quite upsetting to think we might be losing St Mary’s.
“I don’t drive and so I’ve relied on my husband to take time off work to drive me to appointments there in the past.
“I can’t imagine having to go all the way to Leicester to have a baby and, in my case, I had very short labours of 30, 25 and three minutes so I might not even have got there in time.
“The staff are so supportive - they are amazing - and they helped me in so many ways, including getting over my fear of needles.”
Stacey believes they should market the unit more and invest more resources to get more women to use it.
“I think it’s far too restrictive in who can give birth there at the moment,” she added.
“It could be used by more women and I just think it will be really sad for the town if we lose it.”
A Facebook community page at www.facebook.com/savestmarys is asking for concerned residents to join its fight to keep the Melton unit open.
If St Mary’s does close, mums from the borough will have to go to Leicester to give birth or opt to have their baby at home, with the trust launching its first ever dedicated home birth team two years ago, with 15 midwives available to help women with low risk pregnancies, supporting them during their labour and in the postnatal period with advice on health, parenthood and feeding.
There is no timescale in place at the moment on when the changes will begin.
This is what the trust says about the future of St Mary’s Birth Centre:
Why are you closing St Mary’s? How have you tried to get more women using it?
University Hospitals of Leicester NHS Trust (UHL): Our plan is to close St Mary’s Birthing Centre because it is so under-used and not in the most ideal location in the county to best serve the most mums. There is currently only one birth every two-and-a-half days there and this has dropped in recent years. We have actively been promoting St Mary’s to all mums as one of our three birthing units. Regrettably, the number of births at St Mary’s has still continued to fall and we need there to be 500 births a year to make it sustainable.
When will it close?
UHL: If through public consultation the decision is to close the unit, then we would not close until we had opened the new maternity hospital at the Leicester Royal Infirmary.
How come with the number of births going up you want to close the birthing unit in Melton?
UHL: The number of births at St Mary’s has dropped every year, last year there were only 131, and, therefore, this tells us that women are making a choice not to use the centre.
There is no evidence that big maternity hospitals provide better/safer care, so why do you want to axe the midwifery-led birthing unit in Melton?
UHL: We are not planning to close St Mary’s on the grounds of safety or better care, but for sustainability and accessibility as only 131 women chose to deliver there last year.
How many women go to St Mary’s Birthing Unit for after-care, and what will they do if you close it?
UHL: In the last 12 months 384 women transferred into St Mary’s Birthing Centre after giving birth in another hospital. We plan on providing postnatal clinics and breast feeding clinics and the offer of telephone support. With the implementation of better continuity and personalised care, the midwife can assess the ongoing postnatal care needs.
If women identify they need more support at home we have trained support staff that can provide this in their own home.
If they have medical needs or their baby needs observation this will be accommodated within the service.