Maternity care for Aboriginal women

21 October 2016

A new maternity services plan for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women in rural and remote communities is urgently required, a report has found.

Published in the Medical Journal of Australia this week, ‘Improving maternity services for Indigenous women in Australia: moving from policy to practice’ comprehensively reviewed Australia’s National Maternity Services Plan (NMSP) and resulting actions regarding Aboriginal mothers and babies between 2010-2015.

University of Sydney academics from the University Centre for Rural Health, Midwifery and Women's Health Research Unit and National Centre for Cultural Competence co-wrote the report, led by Mater Research Institute–University of Queensland (MRI-UQ) Professor Sue Kildea.

They found that the NMSP “expired without notable results” in three priority areas: building the Aboriginal maternity workforce, providing culturally competent maternity care and developing dedicated programs for ‘birthing on country’.

Emeritus Professor Lesley Barclay AO, from the University Centre for Rural Health, said: “Almost a quarter of Aboriginal women give birth in remote parts of Australia, compared with just two percent of non-Aboriginal women.

“The disparities in health outcomes between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Australians are well established, including higher incidence of preterm birth, low birth weight and newborn mortality.

“We also know chronic diseases take root early in life."

We’re calling on the government to provide urgent funding for priority areas identified and accepted in the past, and for further research into the most effective ways we can arrest and improve health outcomes for all Aboriginal people.
Emeritus Professor Lesley Barclay AO

Professor Sally Tracy, from the University’s Midwifery and Women's Health Research Unit, said: “Australian Aboriginal babies are almost twice as likely to be born with low birth weight than non-Aboriginal babies or Indigenous babies from other countries, and twice as many deaths occur.

“It is time for a new maternity services plan that recommits the government to tackling this situation urgently and effectively, to achieve health equality for all Australians.”

Professor Juanita Sherwood, Academic Director at the University’s National Centre for Cultural Competence, said: “Despite a commitment in the NMSP to support culturally competent, localised care there has been no progress towards establishing and evaluating ‘birthing on country’ services in remote or very remote Australia.

“Cultural competency education and training aims to address health disparities, and further research is required to determine the most effective methods of training and flow-on effects to patients.”

The report notes that three organisations – the Australian College of Midwives, the Congress of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Nurses and Midwives, and the Council of Remote Area Nurses of Australia – have united in calling for fresh action.