CEO reflects on 10-year journey

Rohan Fitzgerald arrived at Western District Health Service as the charity house project was wrapping up and immediately knew he’d found the right place.

“That project involving tradespeople volunteering to build a house for auction to support our operating theatre epitomised the community’s dedication to improving healthcare,” Mr Fitzgerald said.

It was the start of a dynamic nearly decade-long journey of transformative change, innovation, and unwavering community support that led Western District Health Service (WDHS) to new heights.

Mr Fitzgerald, who leaves the role on January 31, had started his working life in insolvency accounting but wanted a more constructive, community-oriented environment.

He entered an executive management program in the health sector which led him to senior roles in Gippsland public hospitals before taking on CEO duties at Stawell Regional Health.

“I fell in love with the industry and what it offers the community and the dedication of the teams and volunteers in healthcare,” he said.

Mr Fitzgerald, who grew up in Warrnambool, said he made a decision many years ago after working in Melbourne and having a short international career that his passion was for working in rural areas.

He joined WDHS in 2014. “The community spirit that is so very strong in the Western District further ignited my passion for working in the health system. It made me feel like I was coming home.”

Early in his term, it became clear that while WDHS was performing well, it needed to refine its strategic direction. This revision was not just an administrative exercise but a powerful catalyst for change, leading to several Australian firsts in healthcare.

The new mantra, “Creating Healthier Communities,” underscored the significance of preventative care. WDHS developed a plan to address key health concerns; cancer, orthopaedic services, and obesity and revitalised the National Centre for Farmer Health (NCFH), which had been reduced to a skeleton staff due to funding cuts.

The need for these changes was driven by stark realities. “The Western District had some of the highest rates of cancer and obesity, and many residents travelled out of town for essential surgeries like hip and knee replacements,” Mr Fitzgerald said. “Over the past decade, we’ve innovated our cancer care model, became the first public hospital in Australia to remove sugary drinks from our premises and significantly increased the number of orthopaedic procedures.”

To complement the new cancer care approach, WDHS again partnered with the community, raising $2 million locally to build a cancer and dialysis centre which now boasts three oncologists. Over five years there has been a 55 per cent increase in patients receiving cancer services and a 64 per cent increase in dialysis services.

To address youth health and wellbeing, WDHS introduced a Youth Board, partnered with Live 4 Life, leading a program to destigmatise mental health and youth suicide, and ran one of the biggest youth events in Hamilton featuring Greta Ray and DJ Barts which remains a topic of conversation today.

Recognising the growing needs of an aging population, WDHS expanded its home care package program, took over the Commonwealth Home Support Program, redeveloped the Birches and Grange aged care facility, and at Coleraine pioneered the 20-minute rounding research project to reduce harm to older people.

Other highlights included the $7 million redevelopment of the Penshurst campus, successfully campaigning and raising more than $3 million for an MRI service, which has already benefited more than 1000 patients, and establishing a clinical skills laboratory in Hamilton to enable the launch of a Bachelor of Nursing program by CQ University, leading to a significant rise in locally based nursing graduates.

The allied health team has grown and introduced innovative models of care including the healthy leg club and oedema clinic.  

WDHS’s commitment to public health over profit led to advocating for a sugar tax and implementing a healthy food policy in the cafe, which Mr Fitzgerald described as another pioneering move. WDHS also embraced sustainability, installing solar panels and incorporating electric vehicles into the fleet.

“There are so many other examples of staff taking on the personal responsibility to continually improve the service we provide to the community,” Mr Fitzgerald added.

Receiving the green light for the emergency department and ICU planning marked another significant achievement.

WDHS has been creating closer links with regional partners. In May 2023 Mr Fitzgerald was appointed dual interim Chief Executive of WDHS and Casterton Memorial Hospital (CMH). “After nine months we are continuing to build on the partnership and the many benefits that it brings,” he said.

However, there have been diverse and demanding challenges along the way, including responding to Australia’s largest cybersecurity attack at that time, securing a workforce and maintaining a financially sustainable health service. 

The pandemic brought unprecedented challenges, but Mr Fitzgerlad said WDHS’s massive response effort, driven by a deeply committed community, helped minimise the impact.  “The effort by the entire team paid massive dividends when we look at our outcomes compared to those across the world and other parts of Australia,” he said.

Mr Fitzgerald said leaders needed to know the right time to move on. “It was coming up to 10 years and something was intuitively telling me that, though there’s much work to be done, it’s the right time to leave and look at the next chapter for me and allow for new life to be breathed into the organisation.

“I’m reinvigorated about what might come next.”

Beyond the milestones and achievements, what stands out for Mr Fitzgerald are the people of WDHS. “It’s the staff, the board, and the community who, day in and day out, contribute immensely and their dedication has made my job easier, allowing us to push boundaries and challenge the status quo,” he said.

“It is rewarding but it’s emotionally taxing and you need to give up a lot to be a hospital chief executive. Giving up family time to deal with hospital issues becomes part of your life. That’s the commitment the role demands.”

At 51, Mr Fitzgerald is unsure what the next chapter will bring, though he and his wife Kim have bought two local motels which will keep them busy.

“We will be staying in the community and enjoying the lifestyle it offers. I think we underestimate how wonderful living in these communities can be. I have been energised and inspired by the people who gave me overwhelming encouragement to continue in this role despite all the challenges.”

“Our community deserves to have its voice heard, that’s what keeps you going and fighting for your community. The MRI is a perfect example of that against the odds.”

Mr Fitzgerald said the health system would face challenges with fewer people to provide services at a time of increasing costs and less revenue. “There needs to be a re-thinking about what a reliable and capable workforce looks like and health services will need to look at technology and other innovative practices,” he said.

However, Mr Fitzgerald is confident that WDHS and CMH will continue to excel and lead in the healthcare sector. “My heartfelt thanks go to the board, the executive team, my executive assistant Claire Hawker, and, most importantly, my family and my wife, Kim, whose unwavering support and wisdom have been my backbone and it will be lovely to spend more time with her and my children.

“The journey with WDHS has been remarkable, and I step away with a heavy heart but filled with pride and confidence in WDHS’s bright future.”

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