A baby born in Bethlehem: how maternity hospital services look in the town of the nativity

By Michael Woodhead

15 Dec 2022

Christmas celebrates a birth that occurred in a Bethlehem manger more than two thousand years ago, but in the modern era mums-to-be can turn to social media and Google to find reviews of obstetrics services in the town celebrated in the nativity.

These days Bethlehem is a small town in the Palestinian West Bank  about 10 km to the south of Jerusalem, with a population of approximately 30,000 inhabitants.

For anyone with a smartphone, Google Maps shows that the nearest public hospital to the centre of Bethlehem is the Beit Jala Governmental Hospital (Al Hussein). This 133-bed hospital is located a 15 minute walk (or donkey ride) away from the Church of the Nativity which was built on the site traditionally considered to be the birthplace of Jesus.

The hospital is run by the Palestinian Authority Ministry of Health and its Facebook page shows a small obstetrics ward located  on the second floor. It has also gained 25 reviews on Google, the most recent stating that “they have good doctors but the flow and appointments take long times … it needs more doctors and new devices for diagnosing.”

But in 2022 Bethlehem has several private and non-for profit hospitals offering  more extensive and well-resourced maternity services. The Holy Family Hospital, run by the Catholic Order Of Malta, is located not far the town centre and has a website and even its own Youtube channel showcasing its obstetric services, including a neonatal ICU.

According to its webpage, the hospital’s 45-bed O&G department handles around 70% of the births in the Bethlehem region, amounting to over 4,700 a year.

The hospital describes itself as “an indispensable resource for women and children who have no alternative options for health care in government facilities.”

The Holy Family Hospital says it provides maternity care “regardless of one’s ability to pay” but relies on donations from governments and NGOs for the specialised diagnostic and path lab equipment.

“With the region’s only NICU caring for babies born before 32 weeks, Holy Family Hospital accepts a disproportionate number of high-risk (and therefore high-cost) cases. Families simply cannot afford the care on their own,” it says.

“Miraculously, the Hospital’s NICU team has achieved a survival rate of nearly 100%, rivalling many hospitals found in Western Europe. Infants as small as 1 pound are regularly nurtured to full health and over 450 premature babies’ lives are saved each year.”

Unsurprisingly, this Bethlehem maternity hospital has many good reviews on Google, but as with all online ratings sites, there are also a few patients who complain about rude staff, long waiting times and lack of adequate car parking.

Meanwhile, across town on the eastern edge of Bethlehem a new facility –  The Shepherd’s Field Hospital –  is also offering maternity services, according to its website.

The 40-bed hospital which started construction in 2013, is managed by the Beit Sahour Cooperative Society for Health Welfare, and claims to offer a maternity department.

But  as with all health services in the occupied West Bank, maternity services in the area have been severely impacted by restrictions relating to the Israel-Palestine geopolitical situation compounded by the consequences of COVID-19 pandemic lockdowns.

As a recent WHO report noted, health services in Palestinian areas such as Bethlehem face multiple challenges from restrictions on movement of patients, hospital staff and ambulance access due to Israeli checkpoints, and delays or bans on entry of medicines, medical supplies and equipment to occupied territories.

So two millenia on from the original Christmas it seems there are now many options for  maternity facilities in Bethlehem – but mothers and babies still face many obstacles to good healthcare.

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