I grew up in a teeny-tiny town in the middle of Wisconsin. There were two stoplights, everyone knew everyone, and I think the cows outnumbered the people. Though I was born at the local hospital, my mom had to travel 40 miles away to deliver my younger sister and brother because they were higher-risk births.
As it turns out, my mom had it easy. According to NBC News, some women in rural areas need to travel hours to the nearest hospital. With hospitals struggling to deal with financial pressures, insurance issues, and doctor shortages, many in rural areas are choosing to close maternity wards. In fact, more than 200 hospitals closed their maternity wards between 2004 and 2014.
The problem isn’t isolated to one region either. In Texas, less than half of the state’s 162 rural hospitals deliver babies, and more than two-thirds of rural counties in Florida, Nevada, and South Dakota have no obstetric services. None. In the last 10 years, 16% of Minnesota lost maternity services, and 1 in 3 three counties in Wisconsin lacks an OB-GYN physician.
“This is a national crisis. Women’s health care and maternity services are central to health care, and we need to do something about it,” Dr. Ellen Hartenbach of the University of Wisconsin told NBC News.
In fact, Hartenbach is doing something about it. She recently launched a program designed to train doctors in the rural communities they will (hopefully) go on to work in so that women in these communities can get the health care that they need. The program’s goals are to have OB-GYNs practicing throughout the state of Wisconsin and ensure that women in rural communities are receiving necessary prenatal care and can deliver their babies in hospitals close to home. Hartenbach believes it is important to train doctors in rural communities so they become invested in that community and can envision themselves practicing medicine there.
“Women shouldn’t have to think twice about getting good quality health care in their small rural town,” said Dr. Laura McDowell, the first resident in the program.
One of the biggest challenges Hartenbach identified is paying for a nursing staff to keep a maternity ward open year-round knowing that the hospital may only deliver one baby or less a day. While other doctors and nurses can help, she said the burden cannot fall solely on emergency departments because they may not be equipped to handle the unique complexities that can arise even in a normal pregnancy, such as hemorrhage, hypertension, and gestational diabetes.
“One of the things we know is the maternal mortality rate is going up in the United States,” Hartenbach said. “That’s different than all the rest of the developing countries. And we need to pay some attention to what is going on with maternity care in the U.S. This is part of it.”
Let’s face it, pregnancy isn’t all glitter and rainbows and bringing a child into the world is no easy feat. We might have a worry list a mile long, but in today’s day and age, worrying about delivering a baby on the side of the road because a mom has to travel hours to the nearest hospital just shouldn’t be on that list.
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