South West Wales

Specialist baby care services centralised in Carmarthenshire

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Media captionOpponents to Hywel Dda Health Board's plan claim lives could be lost

Plans to centralise specialist care for babies born in west Wales are to go ahead, the health minister has said.

The special care baby unit at Withybush hospital in Haverfordwest, Pembrokeshire, will close, as part of a Hywel Dda health board reorganisation.

Campaigners have protested and warned this move could put lives at risk.

Under the new model, doctors in Carmarthen will provide specialist care, with other hospitals eventually providing a midwife-led service.

About 600 people protested earlier this month at the plan to transfer services to Glangwili.

'Safety net'

Health Minister Mark Drakeford said the panel of experts who recommended the changes had included important safeguards, and suggested a phased introduction.

He said: "These include robust 'safety net' arrangements to provide midwives with skilled assistance in the event of an unexpected emergency," he said.

"There must also be robust emergency transfer arrangements, and the midwife-led units must be developed according to strict guidelines.

"These changes will mean that the majority of maternity services will continue to be provided locally by their GP and hospital as they are now, and the majority of women can safely choose to have their deliveries at their local midwife-led unit."

The plans were revealed almost exactly a year ago by the health board but were vetoed by the local patients watchdog the community health council over concerns that closing the special care baby unit in Haverfordwest could put lives at risk.

That meant the health minister had to step in and review the decision himself and he has taken advice from a panel of experts

The panel advising Mr Drakeford indicated providing special baby care units across the health board was "neither safe nor sustainable".

'Care nearer home'

The minister said the interim measures included developing an all-Wales round-the-clock emergency transport service for mothers and babies needing urgent care.

Hywel Dda Health Board medical director Sue Fish said: "The neonatal unit in Glangwili will provide a level of care that we currently don't have available for any of our babies [born] within Hywel Dda.

"They currently have to go outside the area, so they would be able to have their care nearer to home than they would do otherwise," Dr Fish told BBC Radio Wales.

"We are very clear that neither the health board nor the minister would ever put forward an unsafe service and the safety net the minister talked about - with consultants available for the rare emergency whilst the model develops - will ensure patients are safe."

Campaigners have frequently raised concerns that centralising baby care in west Wales could put babies and mothers at increased risk.

Image caption Hundreds protested at the hospital earlier this month against the proposed neonatal care changes

Paul Davies, Conservative AM for Preseli Pembrokeshire, described it as "bleak" for mothers and babies in Pembrokeshire.

He said: "Expectant mothers must be confident in the knowledge that services are fit for purpose and that care for sick and vulnerable babies will be available if the worst happens.

"Travelling any distance lessens survival chances and in a rural area like Pembrokeshire, reaching medical attention within the golden hour can make the difference between life and death."

Mid and West Plaid Cymru AM Simon Thomas said the closure of the neonatal unit at Withybush would see births there dropping from 1,200 to 350 a year.

'Air ambulance'

"Clearly the health minister does not think Hywel Dda health board has prepared sufficiently for this decision, which is why we he ensured a safety net.

"Unanswered questions remain on the use of the air ambulance, support for midwives and what happens in a real emergency."

Welsh Liberal Democrat leader Kirsty Williams said: "Far from being reassured that these changes will lead to a better service, parents-to-be will feel let down by both the local health board and the Welsh Labour government.

"While midwife-led units offer a very good service, it is clear that the majority of mothers who have previously had their babies delivered in Withybush will now have to travel to Carmarthen to have their babies."

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