Primary birthing unit - it’s time to have your say

Charlotte Jean in Alexandra is currently the closest birthing unit for Wānaka residents. | Charlotte Jean

Four options for a new primary birthing unit in Central Otago were presented and discussed in a public meeting at Cromwell Presbyterian Church last Thursday.

The options were formed by the Southern District Health Board (SDHB) after receiving public feedback and conducting meetings with midwives, St John, Māori communities, and other healthcare professionals.

Chris Fleming, the CEO of SDHB acknowledged that “the model is not right and we need to do something.”

Currently, pregnant women in Wānaka must travel to Dunedin Hospital or the Charlotte Jean primary birthing unit in Alexandra to birth their babies. Those considered to have a low-risk pregnancy can also opt for a home birth, which may require a helicopter transfer to Dunedin if complications arise.

All four options proposed at the meeting included a brand new primary birthing unit facility, providing a physical setting for assessment, labour and birth, and postnatal care. A primary birthing unit would also provide other services including pregnancy tests, car seat installations and breast-feeding support.

Mary Cleary Lyons, SDHB general manager of Primary and Population Health, said safety was “of paramount importance for women and their whanau, and they need to know that there are really good arrangements for dealing with emergency situations.”

Retired GP and local resident, Dennis Pezaro, also said that safety should be a key factor when deciding where to place the new unit.

“A very small proportion of women can get into difficulties and may require emergency surgery, which is only available in the base hospitals at Dunedin or Invercargill,” said Pezaro. “It is further complicated if the facility is at a distance from Dunstan hospital, which is the closest source of emergency blood for transfusion.”

Two of the options included a brand-new birthing facility in Wānaka, alongside either another facility in Clyde, or the current Charlotte Jean maternity unit in Alexandra.

Lyons reported that the benefits of a Wānaka-based primary birthing unit included the potential to co-locate the service with General Practice, and the close proximity to a helipad.

On the other hand, operating costs, workforce availability and the distance to secondary services from Wānaka were all considered disadvantages. While primary birthing units are only suitable for low-risk births, many mothers are often transferred there from a hospital for a postnatal stay.

“From the viewpoint of convenience, there is no doubt a Wānaka unit would be a great advantage to the area. My worry would be that the DHB would have huge difficulty supporting the build and running costs of two such units which would, in themselves, be expensive to maintain,” Pezaro said.

He also raised concerns around population growth in the area which could slow down due to the recent impact of Covid-19 - if families were to relocate in order to find other employment opportunities.

SDHB is now calling on the general public to submit their preferences and comments by August 22. The feedback will be used to formulate a report with recommendations to SDHB for its October meeting, when a final decision will be made.

To complete the survey, visit or email feedback to

View edition 985 of the Wānaka Sun here.



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