Once upon a time there was a hospital…

This is a piece I wrote about a local hospital in the outer suburbs of Melbourne, Victoria, Australia. I know it’s a sensitive topic to many of my colleagues and friends, but I’m writing it because I’m tired of the way women have been used in the media coverage of this issue and the way staff at this hospital (and others) have been vilified.

 


 

The stories that have unfurled over the past four months regarding Bacchus Marsh Hospital’s maternity services have certainly been concerning. More than expected numbers of unexplained baby deaths were the trigger for the hospital’s board to be sacked and for the Health Minister to announce concerns about the hospital’s obstetric practices and standards of care. But the media’s handling of the issue has been focussed on blame and retribution and an almost voyeuristic preoccupation with personal stories of baby deaths and maternal wound infections. There also seems to have been little concern for the reputation of local health services in general.

There have been numerous television and print media stories about the alleged “horrors” of Bacchus Marsh hospital’s obstetric services. Even a newspaper piece written by one of the litigation lawyers.

Many of the stories in these reports have come from women whose babies have been stillborn or who have themselves personally suffered infections or complications post-birth at the hospital. Very upsetting stories. Of an often very personal nature. Life-changing events for these women and their families.

These stories have been used by the media to argue that particular doctors at the hospital are unfit to practice.

It is not the media’s responsibility to judge the competency of medical staff at this or any other health service and their use of women’s very personal experiences to this end does not honour these mothers or the memory of their babies.

Instead, the stories have been used to create emotional leverage bordering on hysteria, all the while touted as “giving mothers a voice”. Meanwhile these women have shared their heart-wrenching stories with the world – but to what end?

Many media segments have similarly implied that every baby death at every Victorian hospital is the direct result of medical mismanagement. Sadly, there are babies born every single day in Victoria who never take a breath. The perinatal mortality rate for Victoria in 2011 was 10 in 1,000 births. The reasons for these deaths are often a complex combination of macro structural issues and individual management – important factors that need ongoing close and careful examination by people with appropriate experience and training such as the Consultative Council on Obstetric and Paediatric Mortality and Morbidity (CCOPMM).

One newspaper article last year listed the “likelihood” of baby deaths in specific Victorian hospitals. Interesting stats but what do they really mean and to what end?

These are local community hospitals that people rely on for their healthcare.

There is rarely an alternative service for these people to choose. What do locals do when they lose trust in their neighbourhood health service? And what exactly does it mean that babies are 80% more likely to die at your local hospital? There was no attempt to contextualise these statistics.

At what point does the media take responsibility for the impact this kind of reporting has on undermining local trust in health services?

Bacchus Marsh is a local hospital. It has been a great option for women in the area with normal pregnancies to receive maternity care and to birth close to home. The number of women booking  to have their babies there increased exponentially over the last ten years.  Despite departmental concerns, the hospital is still open for business and presumably it’s staff are trying to somehow rebuild some of that local trust they gained as the hospital’s birth rate grew and grew over the last ten years.

From all this it seems that there are really two key issues that need addressing in this situation:

1. the professional regulation of medical and allied health practitioners is currently the responsibility of AHPRA, and its actions are being called into question, especially regarding delays into investigations of practice. No doubt this is a complex issue related to process and structure.

2.The other issue involves systems of management and leadership for hospitals in Victoria to ensure safe practice and good health outcomes in these services. Not exactly a racy media hook, but good structures can improve accountability and importantly,  help to ensure that people trust their health services to provide safe care for them.

So why not focus on investigating these issues rather than fishing around for allegedly shonky operators who are unlikely to be solely responsible for large numbers of baby deaths, or bringing down the names of local health services who may or may not have practice issues related to their statistics?

If a health service is truly dangerous it should be shut down – no question.

But my heart is with those dedicated health professionals still working at Bacchus Marsh – battling every day the fallout from media stories denigrating their work.

It’s also with the women and families who have shared their stories of heartbreak publicly. Maybe their experiences will help us see the human side of the statistics.

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