LAST Friday’s announcement of a $115 million upgrade for Wonthaggi Hospital caught even Bass Coast Health CEO Jan Child by surprise.
Then on Friday came a call from the Premier’s office. Daniel Andrews and Health Minister Jill Hennessy were coming down to the Wonthaggi Hospital. After a brief tour of the ageing hospital, they announced a major expansion, including a redevelopment of the emergency department, new operating theatre and refurbished wards.
“We didn’t see this coming at all,” Ms Child says. “We were doing all the right things. We’d done a lot of work in the past 12 months on the master plan and the clinical services plan. Usually you have all these things done and dusted and then you wait …”
In fact their timing was perfect. With a state election in November, the Labor State Government is suddenly pouring money into Bass Coast after decades of neglect by both Liberal and Labor governments.
The turnaround for Wonthaggi Hospital in just two years has been remarkable. When Ms Child was co-opted by the Department of Health as chief executive in April 2016, the hospital was facing a $3.5 million deficit, with dilapidated facilities, declining services and declining patient numbers.
Just eight years after Phillip Island had lost its hospital, Wonthaggi seemed to be headed in the same direction.
“It was a renovators’ delight, for sure,” Ms Child says.
The great positive she found was dedicated and compassionate staff and strong community support.
As she set about trying to untangle the problems, she identified a lack of clear direction and a strong belief that the Department of Health was the enemy.
“After 13 years working at Peninsula Health, I’d always been taught the department was there to support us. They wanted us to deliver on the basics. It’s the same thing the community wants.
“The metrics are important. We’ve developed a very positive relationship with the department. They’ve helped us to understand what we need to do and how to get there. They’ve really supported us.”
The upgrade and extensions will enable the hospital to offer a much greater range of services, but Ms Child said it was important they retain what people like about the place.
“Right at the start we asked the staff what they wanted to change and what they wanted to retain. They said the feeling of community was very important. The architects have been working with us to make sure we retain that. We don’t want it to be a sterile place. We want it to be welcoming.”
Last year the priority was to get sub-acute services up and running and to strengthen the emergency department with the right mix of doctors. They can now manage cardiac patients, with 24-hour access to the expertise of a cardiac unit at a big tertiary hospital.
Within 12 months they expect to be providing cancer services. Sick people will no longer have to trundle up and down the highway to Melbourne or Traralgon for chemotherapy. A consultant oncologist is also expected to offer services at the Phillip Island Hub one or two days a week.
The next priority is a high dependency unit for people who are acutely unwell, perhaps after an angina attack or cardiac episode, and paediatric services for childhood illnesses such as asthma, croup and respiratory diseases.
“At the moment we send most of those cases to Melbourne. We want to equip ourselves with the proper facilities and training so we can handle them here.”
Finally, if the funding becomes available, they want to provide for 24-hour emergency surgery. “So if your appendix bursts in the middle of the night we can handle that here.”
Every new service reduces the travel burden on very sick people and their families. It also reduces the costs of transferring patients by ambulance to city hospitals.
With the Hub in place on Phillip Island, Ms Child says they are working to extend services and to develop a telemedicine link between Wonthaggi and the Hub.
She hopes Phillip Islanders will learn to use Wonthaggi Hospital rather than go straight to the city. “But we need to show we can deliver.”
Bass Coast Health chairman Don Paproth describes Wonthaggi as “the mother ship”. “As we improve our facilities we’ll be able to offer a much greater range of services and procedures, and that will flow through to the Phillip Island Hub.”
He said it had been a remarkable turnaround. “When I came onto the board just under three years ago, it was a very worrying time. The headline in the Sentinel Times was “HEALTH CRISIS”. I wondered what I’d got myself into.
“Since then the board has adopted very clear strategies with a focus on quality, output and the local community. We’ve worked with the Department of Health. We’ve done everything they asked us to do. I’m very proud of what we’ve achieved.”
He paid special tribute to Ms Child. “She has been the single most important factor. She’s a brilliant CEO. She has a clear vision that she communicates brilliantly. She’s stepped in where angels feared to tread.”