The future of the area’s maternity services with specialist consultants is uncertain after a meeting in Hartlepool heard there is support for them to be based at just one hospital.
Health chiefs told Hartlepool Borough Council’s Audit and Governance Committee that is a proposal under the Better Health Programme due to a shortage of consultants to go around.
It could mean the consultant-led maternity unit at the University Hospital of North Tees in Stockton, where most Hartlepool mums now give birth, is downgraded to midwife led.
Consultant-led maternity services are also provided at the James Cook University Hospital in Middlesbrough.
Andrea Jones, chief clinical officer of Hartlepool and Stockton Clinical Commissioning Group (CCG), said there were not enough maternity consultants to staff all hospitals in the area.
She said: “This is the crux of the problem. If you want high quality consultant cover then we haven’t got enough.
“That’s not just our area, that’s nationally. It’s not a good place to be in.
“If you look at the workforce that we’ve got for obstetrics and paediatrics it is going to be a significant challenge.
“A single unit is one of the options that we’re looking towards. I know the obstetricians are fully supportive of that because it’s the only real model that can provide that quality.”
Councillor John Tennant said any proposal to downgrade the consultant-led midwife unit at North Tees hospital should be resisted.
“It could be putting lives at risk,” he said. “We would lose faith in you.”
Coun Brenda Harrison said: “I know you are stretched but I don’t think we should fold because of a national problem.”
Ms Jones said the Better Health Programme and Sustainability and Transformation Partnerships were about meeting higher standards of care and being more pro-active.
The CCG stressed no decision had been taken and there would be consultation.
The council is investigating maternity and services after a dramatic reduction in the number of town births since the maternity unit at Hartlepool changed from consultant-led to midwife-led nine years ago.
From 1,668 births in 2007, there were just nine last year.
Coun Ray Martin-Wells, chair of the council’s Audit and Governance Committee, has accused the hospital trust of actively discouraging pregnant women from giving birth at Hartlepool hospital.
He said: “Midwives do a fantastic job but if they don’t have the equipment and the expertise around them to assist them then you are going to put that unborn child at risk, so I don’t believe anyone would really do that.
“The next thing that’s going to be said is the team that’s there isn’t getting the practice necessary to keep current.”
The trust says the midwife unit at Hartlepool is suitable for low risk births.
Coun Harrison said: “I think it’s ludicrous that we don’t have a maternity service as we used to have.
“People in Hartlepool are horrified by the fact that their babies are being born in Stockton.
“Because they live in Hartlepool they want their babies to be born in Hartlepool.
“I think it’s appalling that this service has reduced so much.”
Janet Mackie, head of midwifery and children’s services at North Tees and Hartlepool NHS Foundation Trust, said midwives from Hartlepool also work at the North Tees Unit to keep their skills up.
The trust said 108 women are currently due to give birth at Hartlepool hospital.
It added that more mums-to-be are being seen with higher Body Mass Indexes and other conditions such as diabetes raising their risk.