22 October 2020

Dr Nick Coatsworth takes on his toughest appointment yet

| Ian Bushnell
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Dr Nick Coatsworth

Dr Nick Coatsworth is excited about making Canberra Hospital the nation’s best. Photo: Ian Bushnell.

The telegenic Dr Nick Coatsworth became a household name during the Commonwealth response to COVID-19, and before that led Australian disaster response teams.

But the infectious diseases expert with the movie star looks and easy manner now faces probably the greatest challenge of his stellar career – helping to heal a Canberra Hospital where the workplace has been described as “toxic” and “in crisis”.

After a six-month secondment to the Commonwealth, Dr Coatsworth, 42, has returned to the hospital as Canberra Health Services Executive Director of Medical Services, overseeing the major service providers in radiology, pharmacology and pathology, as well as resuming some clinical work and callouts.

He sees it as somewhat of a homecoming, having worked at TCH for four years before the secondment, and seems unfazed at the enormity of the task ahead.

He also brings with it an ambition fed by success.

”I want someone coming into this hospital to feel that they’re getting a very smooth journey through this hospital. That would be a great outcome,” he said.

”And also we’re the capital. Wouldn’t it be great if we could boast the best healthcare service in the country? It seems pretty appropriate that we have this ambition.”

Dr Coatsworth is enthusiastic about the vision of the hospital executive to bring together the different sectors of the workforce to put the troubled past behind it, and he has a personal investment.

”That’s the health system that my family is going to use; it seems a good thing to be a part of,” he said.

Dr Coatsworth will draw on skills learned during COVID-19 but also from his time as acting executive director of the National Critical Care and Trauma Response Centre in Darwin, and no doubt as a Medecins Sans Frontieres doctor in Africa.

If ever there was a person to keep a cool head in a crisis and bring people with him, it would be Dr Coatsworth.

He wants to break down the barriers at TCH exposed in the culture review, and bring all clinicians – doctors, nurses and allied health professionals – together to create a cohesive team to deliver quality services.

”It means from the CEO all the way through the organisation, working towards the same aim,” he said.

”You can’t have that cohesive health response if you’ve got the different professions not working together well.”

Dr Nick Coatsworth

Dr Nick Coatsworth: ”We’ve got to take all the staff along.” Photo: Dominic Giannini.

Dr Coatsworth says the mundane work of balancing budgets will still have to be done but he is open to clinicians coming forward with innovative ways of delivering care.

”I want to be able to support those where I can,” he said.

Making sure doctors are more engaged will be part of that, given a lack of engagement was identified in the review.

And while the hospital expansion will offer many exciting opportunities, the buildings alone will not be enough.

”We’ve got to take all the staff along with it. There is no point having – what did they say in Yes, Prime Minister? – a hospital without patients. This is about also what goes inside – satisfied patients, satisfied health care workers,” he said.

Health is always a hot political issue, no less in Canberra where TCH has been under intense scrutiny, but Dr Coatsworth’s time with the Commonwealth’s COVID-19 response will hold him in good stead.

Politics was never far away, especially with the thorny issue of border closures, but Dr Coatsworth said the team focused on its technical advice and left the execution to the politicians.

”We had to be really careful particularly in the media to draw that line,” he said.

”When we were asked about borders in the most difficult times about six weeks ago the response was that restricting movement is part of COVID control, but then that’s the technical advice, how that is executed becomes a decision for government.”

But in that first wave it didn’t matter which governing party was involved because ”we were all working together”.

And while Victoria has had its problems, the results there are incredible, he says.

”The actions to control it has been very hard for Victorians but they’ve achieved control which is not something that many other countries have been able to do,” he said.

The nation was now heading in the right direction, capitalising on our island status to suppress the virus, which other countries with land borders are struggling to do.

But Dr Coatsworth warned that there would be more cases of COVID-19.

”It will happen. It’s about how we control the response to that, particularly in places like our tertiary hospitals, to make people feel safe when they come for care,” he said.

The new role is a long-term commitment and Canberra is home now for his family.

”We never thought we’d love Canberra, but it’s Australia’s best-kept secret,” he said.

”I have a five, seven and nine-year-old, and it just makes it so much easier to give them all the opportunities they need,” he said.

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