For nearly two decades calls have been made to expand the role of midwives within maternity services in Australia. Although some progress has been made, it has been slow and, at system-wide level, limited. There are many barriers that prevent the expansion of midwifery-led services in Australia including funding arrangements for midwifery care, a lack of political will and resistance from powerful medical interest groups. The ongoing debate that exists about the evidence for the safety of midwifery-led care, particularly for the intrapartum phase, is likely to be an important reason why policy-makers are reluctant to implement system-wide reforms of maternity services.
Those opposed to the expansion of midwifery-led care argue that these services are only appropriate for low-risk women. They claim the evidence in support of midwifery-led care has too many holes in it to guarantee that services are safe for higher risk women. Midwifery advocates, however, argue there is no evidence to support the claim that midwifery-led services lead to poorer outcomes in any risk group. Despite this, funding for midwifery-led care outside hospitals remains limited. This article contends that calls for the system-wide expansion of midwifery-led care (such as through funding independently practising midwives) based on the available evidence are unlikely to succeed. There are too many methodological challenges in this area to ever "prove" that midwifery-led services are safe – except for the lowest risk women – and when there is doubt, policy-makers are likely to err on the side of caution.
In order to expand access to midwifery care, advocates should abandon the idea of system-wide reform for now. Instead, they should concentrate on implementing small-scale, locally based changes because it is at this grass roots level that health professionals can work together to resolve the major sticking points – accurately assessing risk, identifying when it changes and responding appropriately. While a lack of political will is a major obstacle to reform it is amenable to change. We argue that system-wide reform is most likely to occur when policy-makers can reference examples of successful locally-based midwifery-led programs across Australia.