Maternity plan for Caithness General approved by NHS board
The board of NHS Highland has approved a plan to set up maternity services at Caithness General in Wick as a Community Midwife Unit (CMU).
Women at risk of birthing complications are to be taken to Raigmore Hospital in Inverness, about 102 miles from Wick, under the proposal.
The move which will see the withdrawal of consultant obstetrics was agreed on grounds of safety, the board said.
However, the change is opposed by a local campaign.
A number of campaigners travelled from Caithness to stage a demonstration outside the board's meeting in Inverness.
The CMU setup could be in place by April next year.
Chiefs at NHS Highland said the health board already operated seven CMUs and has "a lot of experience" of this type of care.
The maternity unit at Caithness General is currently led by consultant obstetricians, but it has no facilities for on-site specialist neonatal paediatric support or adult intensive care.
NHS Highland has said that the majority of births at the hospital can be handled by midwives only.
Internal and external reviews of services at Wick support the need for the planned changes, the health board said.
Five newborn babies have died at the hospital since 2010. An external review and report suggested that at least two were "potentially avoidable".
Dr Rod Harvey, NHS Highland's medical director, said the midwife-led unit would be able to identify problems in pregnancies at an early stage, allowing preparations to be made to provide care to mothers and their babies.
He told BBC Radio Scotland that pregnant women who had to be transferred would be moved in a "calm and collected way".
Dr Harvey said: "We are not looking for women to be transferred in large numbers in emergency ambulances. Clearly that will occasionally occur and that facility has to be available.
"What we are looking to do is transfer women ideally before they go into labour, or in the very earliest stages of labour when there is still plenty of time, and to avoid ambulance emergency transfers.
"We know that is a very successful model. We have got seven other Community Midwife Units in other parts of the Highlands, so we have got a lot of experience of this type of care."
However, it has been claimed that mothers living in Caithness are considering not having more children because of planned changes to maternity services, it has been claimed.
Bill Fernie, a Highland councillor for Wick, said he knows of young mothers "seriously thinking about limiting their families".
He said people in the local community regard the health board's proposed changes to a years-long set up as a further downgrading of health services in the Far North.
Mr Fernie told BBC Radio Scotland: "Certainly no-one wants to see anything unsafe, but if it is so unsafe why has very little if anything be done in the last 11 years to sort this out?
"Now they come forward and all they can suggest is another downgrading.
"They cannot guarantee there will be no deaths in coming years just because they have removed the consultants and have a midwife-only led unit.
"Some young mothers are seriously thinking about limiting their families and not having any more children if they have to have the service they have got lined up for Caithness."
He added: "I think that is a major issue when we are already struggling to keep our population up."