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Progressive politics, ideas & culture

January-February 2010

Midwifery is ready for delivery, but mainstream public health lags

Chris BenjaminWebsite

Providing midwifery in a public health system presents challenges, but theyre worth it. Creative Commons photo by Flickr user limaoscarjuliet.

Providing midwifery in a public health system presents challenges, but they're worth it. Creative Commons photo by Flickr user limaoscarjuliet.

In March 2009, Nova Scotia became the seventh province to incorporate midwifery into the public health care system. Instead of paying and arranging for the service privately, residents now have it covered and regulated by the provincial government.

Midwifery should be seen as the progressive (yet traditional) and cost-effective method of childbirth in Canada. But the upfront cost of creating a regulatory body for midwives, especially in smaller provinces with few practitioners, is offputting for governments. Still, this community-based model of birth, with its decreased hospital time (due to homebirths, shorter hospital stays for hospital births, and less frequent obstetrical interventions) and on-call services, creates significant long-term savings for the health care system.

Nova Scotia’s example offers important lessons to New Brunswick, Newfoundland and Labrador, the Yukon, and Nunavut, all of which will soon regulate midwifery. (New Brunswick will institute legislation and begin hiring midwives in just a few months.) Nova Scotia’s transition hasn’t come without kinks: there remains a shortage of midwives, a lack of public funds allocated to midwifery and the entire health care system faces geographical challenges—rural communities still have trouble accessing public services.

On the positive side, the change means that midwifery services will now be free in Nova Scotia, as they are from British Columbia to Quebec. “Just the very fact of covering midwifery in a provincial health plan and making that known will attract women of all different backgrounds,” explains Aimee Carbonneau, a Toronto midwife who has only ever worked in a public system. Ontario was the first province to regulate midwifery, in 1994. “If it is not supported and paid for by the government, you end up seeing a clientele that is mostly white, middle-class and up, with post-secondary education,” she says.

Maren Dietze, past president of the Association of Nova Scotia Midwives and a practicing midwife in Nova Scotia’s South Shore District, says regulation also gives midwives a new level of legitimacy: “Before we couldn’t deliver in hospital and we couldn’t order ultrasounds. Now we are accepted as part of the team.”

Midwife groups in Nova Scotia have struggled with successive governments since the early ’80s for public care, yet it remains available in only three of the province’s nine health districts. The other six District Health Authorities did not respond to the province’s call for model midwifery sites. According to Jan Catano, co-founder of the Midwifery Coalition of Nova Scotia, “The province didn’t want to roll out midwifery to the whole province at once because there were not enough midwives.”

Instead, a two-year budget for seven fulltime midwives was created. They work from sites in Halifax, Antigonish, and Bridgewater, leaving most of the province without access. Even if more midwives become available to Nova Scotia, from new graduates and a strong pool of internationally trained talent, the money isn’t yet budgeted to hire them.

Consequently, some midwives were essentially forced out of business in the transition.

To create universal access, Dietze says, “We would need more funding for midwives and we would need to be promoting midwifery to all the health districts,” so that local District Health Authorities demand the service and funding.

In the meantime, any Nova Scotian mother living outside the model districts in the centre of the province will lack access. And the situation is not unique to Nova Scotia. “I think for most of Canada, geography represents a big challenge,” Carbonneau says. “Many northern and especially Aboriginal northern communities are trying to bring birth back, but it’s quite tricky juggling the low numbers with the allocation of resources.” The Association of Ontario Midwives, for example, estimates its members serve only 60 percent of their demand.

Meanwhile, the three midwifery centres in Nova Scotia are swamped. And demand seems to be skyrocketing in some areas, such as Dietze’s South Shore District.

“A year ago we had five or six births here; now we have 40 on our books and we’ll have 70 or 80 people next year,” she says.

But, despite the increased demand regulation brings, midwifery is still not a financial priority in the province; compared to other health issues such as senior care or, more recently, H1N1.

The irony is that midwifery is less expensive than the medical model of childbirth, which treats pregnancy as an illness requiring costly medical interventions like drugs or surgeries. Further, midwives have a rich

Canadian history of catching babies in the most remote locations, especially when doctors weren’t available. In that traditional system, midwives went where doctors couldn’t or wouldn’t.

Now, as more provinces regulate midwifery, those remote areas are being left behind. Midwifery can’t properly be called “public” until access is universal.

To make that happen, more midwives are needed and that requires more Canadian midwifery graduates and greater integration of internationally trained midwives. Provincial governments need to make a special effort to promote midwifery to rural health districts and back up their words with trained midwives ready to live in and serve rural communities and First Nations reserves. And a culture change is needed in the medical institutions hosting midwives. To do their jobs properly, midwives need the freedom, flexibility, and mobility to provide homebirths and travel significant distances when necessary.

All of these changes require upfront investments, but collectively they will save taxpayer dollars currently being wasted on unnecessary birthing interventions and hospital stays that only hurt women and their families.

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