OVERWHELMED public maternity hospitals are rejecting bookings for pregnant women, forcing them to find hospitals further away or switch to expensive private care.
In a trend being investigated by the Victorian Health Services Commissioner, staff at the recently expanded Werribee Mercy Hospital have told several local women this year that the hospital is too full to book them in for antenatal care.
This is despite a $14 million redevelopment that opened eight new maternity beds and four special care nursery cots last year to cater for a surging population of young families.
Health Services Commissioner Beth Wilson said she had also received complaints from women who had been turned away from the Royal Women's Hospital, which cared for more than 7000 births last financial year despite being built for 5000.
Ms Wilson said she was particularly concerned about women being denied public maternity services close to home and said the government needed to invest in growth corridors, particularly in Melbourne's west.
''The west is one of the fastest growing districts in the world. There are new suburbs springing up and there are young people buying houses and moving in, but the health services are not keeping up with that spurt of growth. Unless we do something about this quickly there are going to be big problems,'' she said.
Doctors told The Age the shortage of beds at Werribee and the Royal Women's was affecting Sunshine Hospital, which was now taking many additional bookings despite a lack of birth suites. They said it was also causing many women to be discharged home one day after birth, jeopardising post-natal care.
Last year, Victorian Auditor General Des Pearson revealed more than 200 women had given birth at Sunshine's emergency department due to a shortage of space in its maternity unit. The audit also found the Department of Health had failed to manage maternity services across the state during soaring demand over the past decade, particularly in the booming northern and western suburbs.
While the state government has funded Sunshine Hospital to build two new birthing suites this financial year, which will bring its total number to 12, Western Health's director of clinical services for women and children, Associate Professor Glyn Teale, said the hospital needed five more to bring it up to par.
''On the basis of the averages around the state in the Victorian Auditor General's report, we need in the region of 17 birth suites rather than 12,'' he said.
Executive Director of Mercy Public Hospitals, Linda Mellors, acknowledged Werribee Mercy was turning some women away, but would not say how often this was happening.
''Demand is constant and booking requests sometimes exceed the hospital's ability to ensure that every pregnancy is managed safely and appropriately. When this is the case we may need to refer the booking to another local hospital,'' she said in a written statement.
A spokeswoman for the Royal Women's said it referred women living outside of its local area who did not have a complex or high risk pregnancy to their local maternity hospitals because they had to prioritise
those needing specialist care. When asked how the hospital was delivering 2000 more births than it was built for, the spokeswoman declined to say whether beds had been added, but said there was ''appropriate capacity''.
President of the the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists Dr Rupert Sherwood said public hospitals needed to be funded in line with growing demand because maternity units were already running efficiently.
''A lot of the slack has already been taken up,'' he said.
''If a service gets overwhelmed, the risks to individual patients increase. You can't help that when you're dealing with large numbers … the potential for errors increases.''
Dr Sherwood said while Victorian women were still getting excellent care in the public system compared to other countries, the average length of stay had reduced to about two days for women giving birth, meaning some would be sent home with problems, especially with breastfeeding.
A government spokesman said it had funded three new neonatal intensive care cots this financial year and had established a new Ministerial Perinatal Services Advisory Committee to help plan neonatal and maternity services for the state.