A maternity unit at a North East hospital could close within two years following proposals put forward by health chiefs.
Many women are now turning away from the midwife-led service offered at Tyneside General Hospital and opting for medical-led units that are less local.
So, new proposals would see the unit at North Tyneside General Hospital no longer provide a service for deliveries or in-patient care. Women would instead be able to deliver their babies at the new Northumbria Specialist Emergency Care Hospital in Cramlington, Northumberland, when it opens in 2015.
When the new specialist emergency care hospital opens there will be a midwifery-led unit as well as a medical-led unit.
Under the plans, North Tyneside women would continue to receive as much of their antenatal and postnatal care as possible in a range of local settings as close to their home as possible. There would be no deliveries at the general hospital and no women transferred there as in-patients to receive care and support after the birth of their baby at other hospitals.
Similar arrangements already exist at the Royal Victoria Infirmary, where there is the Newcastle Birthing Centre and a medical-led unit.
From 2015, no matter whether they are classed as low or high risk due to existing health conditions, women will be able to choose to deliver their babies at either Cramlington or Newcastle. Low risk women may also choose to have a home birth.
Dr Ruth Evans, a North Tyneside GP, who is a clinical director of NHS North Tyneside CCG, said: “Since the opening of the free-standing midwifery-led unit at North Tyneside General Hospital in 2007 we have seen a year on year reduction in the number of women delivering babies there, and this now stands at around four a week.
“More than 90% of local women now deliver their babies outside North Tyneside. More than three-quarters give birth at the Royal Victoria Infirmary in either the Newcastle Birthing Centre or the medical-led unit, and the remainder mainly deliver at Wansbeck General Hospital, with a small number at the free-standing midwifery-led unit at North Tyneside.
“The reduction in deliveries at the free-standing midwifery-led unit is in line with changing national guidelines.”
A 14-week public consultation on the new arrangements has now been launched by NHS North Tyneside Clinical Commissioning Group.
Dr Evans said it was the right time to assess maternity services to ensure women receive the best possible care.
Over the next three months, GPs and senior managers from the CCG will hold public events and will be attending existing meetings of the council, Health and Wellbeing Board, Healthwatch and the community and voluntary sector to allow people to comment on the proposals.
One comment has already come from Tynemouth MP Alan Campbell.
He said: “I am very concerned about the plans. There has been considerable change in maternity services in North Tyneside in the last few years.
“What I want to see for local people is the safest possible environment for women to have a baby in and I want it to be local.”