Latest update: 21/10/2012
Tragic roadside birth sparks French healthcare alarm
The tragic story of a woman who lost her baby while giving birth in her car made headlines across France on Sunday and sparked concerns over a lack equality in a healthcare system regarded by the World Health Organization as the best in the world.
By Ben MCPARTLAND (text)
Longstanding fears that France is no longer able to offer equal access to healthcare have been reawakened after a woman was forced to give birth in a motorway lay-by because she was unable to make it to her nearest maternity hospital.
The 35-year-old woman, a little over seven months pregnant, visited her doctor on Friday in her local town of Figeac, in France’s rural south-west Lot region, fearing she was about to give birth.
Her doctor advised her to head directly to a respected maternity centre located an hour and a quarter’s drive away. Tragically, the woman and her partner were unable to make it in time and were forced to pull over on the A20 motorway.
By the time emergency services arrived a short while later, they found her clutching the lifeless body of her newborn baby. It remains unclear at what point during the birth the baby died.
The incident has shocked a country, which prides itself on its high-quality national healthcare, judged as the best in the world by the World Health Organisation in 2000.
“It’s a disaster, there are no local services”
With the woman’s local maternity centre having closed in 2009, Friday’s events have reopened an old debate in France over the increase of a phenomenon known as “déserts médicaux”, or "medical deserts", referring to regions where there is an absence of adequate medical care.
“Since the maternity ward closed, local firemen have had to help three different women give birth in their cars,” André Génot, head of the local fire brigade, told French media. “We do not have access to services locally. It’s a disaster.”
The statistics support his concerns. According to the weekly Le Journal du Dimanche, one in two women living in France’s most isolated areas, which include the Lot region, have to travel more than 30 minutes to a specialised maternity centre.This compares with 15 percent of women living in the Paris region.
Since 1975, around two thirds of France’s maternity centres have closed down, with only 535 of the original 1370 clinics still operating.
“Over the last 15 to 20 years we have destroyed many of our healthcare services across the country,” Michel Antony, president of a pressure group leading the fight against hospital closures, told FRANCE 24 on Sunday. “The Lot is just one region where there are areas without medical services. Women have to travel far to give birth.”
“It is obvious the quality of care in some areas has been degraded and it now needs restructuring. If the government does not deal with this problem, we are only going to hear about similar tragic stories in the future. That is the reality.”
The sad story of the Lot family has prompted France’s President François Hollande to take action. On Saturday, he announced an immediate inquiry into the circumstances of the baby’s death.
Hollande also reaffirmed his vow to ensure that every potential patient in France is within 30 minutes of emergency medical treatment, adding that Friday’s events was a “reminder we should not accept any medical deserts” in France.
A government bill has also made plans to introduce 200 doctors to various isolated regions in 2013.
Health insurance for all
Hollande’s “30 minute” promise is just one of a number of health reforms he is trying to implement to improve healthcare and make it more accessible to the country’s worse-off.
The Socialist president has made public his desire to see that all French people have access to medical insurance, known in France as a "mutuelle".
France’s health system requires most patients to pay upfront for non-urgent medical care, around 70 percent of which is then refunded directly to the patient through the state’s social security system. The mutuelle insurance then covers all or part of the remaining costs.
But four million French citizens currently live without the cover of a mutuelle, a statistic Hollande wants remedied by the time his term of office comes to an end in 2017.
“The time has come to bring an end to the drift towards freemarket healthcare,” Hollande told the congress of Mutualité Francais in Nice on Saturday.
The president is also trying to tackle the problem of doctors and other medical professionals charging patients excessively high fees for treatment and consultations. His government is currently overseeing tense negotiations between unions and industry professionals to solve the issue.
If the talks fail to produce an agreement, Hollande says the government will simply lay down the law.
“We cannot accept that a certain number of our compatriots are being affected by these excessive fees and therefore cannot receive quality care,” Hollande said.