Overwhelmed public maternity hospitals around the country 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.
In one case, Ankit and Apexa Vyas tried to making a booking with Werribee Mercy - which is only five minutes from their Point Cook home - when they learnt Apexa was seven weeks pregnant. They were told the hospital was fully booked, and that their only option would be to book one of two private obstetricians allowed to use the hospital. The private obstetricians were also booked.
The couple then tried the Royal Women's Hospital, only to be told they lived too far away - but finally found a place at Sunshine Hospital.
"If there is no traffic, it is about 40 minutes from our house, but if there is traffic it could be an hour and a half," Mr Vyas said. "We were prepared to pay any dollar to get into the Mercy but we have been left with no choice."
This all comes despite last year's $14 million redevelopment that saw the opening of eight new maternity beds and four special care nursery cots at Werribee Mercy.
Health services aren't keeping up with that spurt of growth - unless we do something about this quickly there are going to be big problems
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 only 5000.
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.
"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 postnatal 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.
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.
Dr Rupert Sherwood, president of the the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, 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.
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