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North Obstetrics’ labour of love

Going into practice together has let Dr Margie Harpham and Dr Kathryn Austin of North Obstetrics create their dream model of obstetric care.

  5 minutes


You would think it would be busy enough bringing new life into the world as your profession—without the added pressures of opening a new practice. But that’s what obstetricians and maternal fetal medicine specialists Dr Margie Harpham and Dr Kathryn Austin did. They brought their dream practice into the world while juggling their own pregnancies, childcare, family life, their public hospital commitments, their private business, looking after private patients and delivering babies in the middle of the night. “It's been a juggle,” Dr Harpham laughs, “but it's been a fun juggle.”

Their practice, North Obstetrics, opened its doors a few years before the pandemic hit. Both deliver babies at North Shore Private Hospital and Royal North Shore (Public) Hospital, which are on the same campus in Sydney’s North. “Right between those two hospitals was a brand-new building that we saw being built for years, from ground up to where it is now, called the North Shore Health Hub,” Dr Austin says. “We always had a pretty strong idea that that's where we wanted to be so that we could be right in the middle of things.

“As is the way of the world, because it was a prime location, the price attached to it in terms of rent was also very high,” she adds. “It was something we had to really think carefully about: was the safety and convenience worth the extra money?”


An idea is born

Drs Harpham and Austin met more than a decade ago when they were both training at the Royal Hospital for Women. They immediately clicked as friends, but also shared a similar ethos in terms of obstetrics and caring for women. That friendship laid the groundwork for them going into business together.

“After many years of planning, we both ended up on the North Shore of Sydney and decided that we would start North Obstetrics,” says Dr Harpham. “We designed it around a model of obstetric care that we would like to receive ourselves. Care by people who had sufficient time to talk through matters and gave women options to put them in control of their own care, empowering them to have all the information to have the birth, baby, and experience they deserved.”

Drs Harpham and Austin had been drawn to obstetrics because of the balance of medical and surgery skills it required. “It's a very human specialty,” Dr Harpham says. “You're dealing with families during what is usually an extremely happy time and one of the most important times in their lives. It's also a beautiful blend of the medical side of things—balancing potential complications of pregnancy, blood pressure problems, diabetes problems, or baby growing problems—but also using your hands. Delivering a baby or doing an operation like a caesarean section is a really nice combination of using your brain and your hands.”

Creating the right space

Over their years of talking about it and planning, both had developed a clear vision of what they wanted North Obstetrics to be—and a clear idea of what they didn’t want it to be.

“We didn't want our rooms to be, for want of a better word, ‘hospital-ly’. We didn't want there to be a smell like disinfectant and to have little orange and yellow buckets of syringes all over the walls. We didn’t want tiny, cramped waiting rooms where people felt like a patient and didn't want to be. We wanted it to feel like a safe haven, a day spa, a place where women would be heard. We wanted it to be nice.

“When we were looking for rooms, we wanted it to be light and bright and airy, both for the women who would come there, but also for us who were going to spend a lot of our lives working there. We wanted the fit-out to be warm, friendly and inviting, and we wanted women to feel relaxed. We set it up with nice artwork on the walls, fresh flowers, and nice music playing. There are no syringes or gloves in sight, there's no antiseptic smell. It’s not a place where sick people would go—because generally, pregnant women are not sick. Generally, they're well and having a positive experience in their lives.”

Room to grow

Part of that vision for North Obstetrics is that it would start with just Dr Harpham and Dr Austin, but it would grow. So, while they had their eye on the health hub on the hospital campus, they needed a space that would allow for growth in the future. Negotiating that was one of the hardest jobs of all.

“That involved lots and lots of meetings with the developer and the property manager and lots of planning, site visits, and teleconferences through pandemics to try and establish if we wanted to be there and at what price we were prepared to pay,” says Dr Austin. “But then also what floor would we want to be on, what aspect did we want, how many square metres of space did we want, how many consulting rooms did we want, how many receptionist spaces, and so on.”

Two professions that go hand in hand with obstetrics are midwifery and physiotherapy, and they always suspected they would be launching branded practices in those disciplines. They just didn’t expect to be doing so as quickly as they did.

“We found that women really liked that idea, it became very popular very quickly and we essentially ran out of space faster than we thought,” says Dr Harpham. “We had to double our floor space in just over a year, so we've taken on a whole second suite.”

After considering other financiers, including major banks, they found Ben Glasgow and the team at BOQ Specialist offered flexibility while aligning with their vision. “We were referred to BOQ Specialist by our accountant and we developed a good relationship quite quickly. We found the process very easy and we always found the people we spoke to very approachable via email, text or call.”

That vision hasn’t finished with their relocation and expansion at the health hub. “Our dream is to create an all-encompassing women's health network” says Dr Austin.

“Based around the obstetric care, but also with physiotherapy for women's health, Pilates classes, and midwifery care. Next, we would like to think about—particularly with the recent pandemic and lots of people needing help with their mental health—how we can potentially assist in that space. We may look to take on board some psychologists or psychiatrists to help, particularly with perinatal mental health.

“Come and see us and we can cater for many different needs at this time of transition in your life. That's the big vision and that's where we're heading. We've taken some pretty giant steps so far, but there’s still more to come.” 


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