Despite a historically low birthrate, Estonia has no plans to close smaller hospitals' maternity wards and all current county hospitals need to be retained too, Minister of Health and Labor Riina Sikkut told Vikerraadio.
"Maternity wards will not be closed," Sikkut said when asked whether the number of annual births dropping below 300 will force smaller hospitals to reorganize.
"It looked like we did not need the recent network of hospitals before the coronavirus crisis. But the latter demonstrated that we really do in order to ensure medical assistance," the minister said. "There is no plan to close individual wards either."
"I believe the past two years have been exceptional because of Covid, price hikes and the war," Sikkut said when commenting on Estonia's low birthrate, adding that studies suggest the number of children being born should bounce back somewhat.
"This historical low of fewer than 11,000 annual births will rather remain exceptional," the health minister remarked.
Sikkut admitted that a hospital's income does depend on whether it helps deliver 200 or 400 babies a year but emphasized that Estonia should rather make sure its hospitals network is not too Tallinn-centric.
The minister also said that the planned Tallinn Hospital needs to happen, which will be included in the Ministry of Social Affairs' hospitals development plan to be completed next year.
"And county hospitals will also be retained. Relevant certainty needs to be put on paper."
Several smaller hospitals in Estonia have seen deliveries fall to below 300 a year, which is raising concerns of the sustainability of maternity wards.
"Unfortunately, closing maternity wards would also see the disappearance of gynecologists. It is on-call work and 24-hour shifts that allow us to keep specialists in the area – we often also lose access to out-patient obstetrical care and appointments," said Agnes Aart, chief of medicine for the South Estonia Hospital.
There are currently 12 hospitals in Estonia offering childbirth care, while all of them have been seeing fewer births in recent years, said Heli Paluste, head of the healthcare network for the Ministry of Social Affairs.
Editor: Marcus Turovski