ALMOST a third of pregnant women in Caithness are travelling more than 100 miles to give birth.
During 2013, a total of 75 of the 244 pregnant women in the county, 31%, were transferred to Inverness’ Raigmore Hospital for specialist care.
This figure compares to only 30 out of 289 women, 12%, travelling south in 2005, with the remainder giving birth at Caithness General Hospital.
But the number has been slowly rising since then, to 15% in 2008 and 25% in 2009. In 2012, a total of 89 out of 288 women went to Inverness to give birth, also 31%.
NHS Highland put the rise down to stricter risk assessment guidelines.
North lead midwife Mary Burnside said: “We have a clinical risk criteria which all women are assessed against and based on this, women will be advised to deliver in either Raigmore or Caithness.
“Risk criteria has changed over the years in line with clinical evidence, research and guidance.
“The BMI [body mass index] threshold is an example of this, where women with a BMI over 35 are now recommended to deliver in Raigmore unit.
“We are also now seeing more women with complex medical histories. Caithness maternity has always had a risk assessment criteria and offers local birth for low-risk pregnancies.
“This is in accordance with evidence-based guidance and ensures the safest outcomes for mothers and babies.”
The top-floor maternity unit in Wick is consultant-led, with obstetricians and anaesthetists providing a service seven days a week and an on-call service out-of-hours.
There is no intensive adult or neo-natal care unit and no consultant paediatric support on site and all women are screened to ensure any high-risk pregnancies are referred to Raigmore.
Unlike Caithness General Hospital, the city hospital offers an epidural service for pain relief in labour.
The maternity unit has been reviewed three times in the past decade and during the last one in 2010, NHS Highland sought to do away with the three consultants and put midwives in charge of the unit.
Health and social care public and patient representative David Flear said safety of the mother had to be paramount.
“We have to balance what is possible and what is safe at CGH, we still have an excellent maternity unit which is obstetrician-led but there are times when women are seen at bigger risk staying in Wick than going to Raigmore,” he said.
“If women were being transferred, which would result in work being taken away from CGH, I would have a problem with that, but high-risk pregnancies are moved to Raigmore in the interests of the patient.
“Some people say more money should be spent on hospital services in Caithness but if there was money available, what would be the greatest need to spend it on?”