Q&A with Professor Shirley Bowen: Meet the new CEO at NMHS | AMA (WA)


Medical Administration

Q&A with Professor Shirley Bowen: Meet the new CEO at NMHS

Tuesday August 16, 2022

Q. After leadership roles at the University of Notre Dame Fremantle and most recently, St John of God Subiaco Hospital, why did you put your hand up for a public sector role such as Chief Executive of the North Metropolitan Health Service (NMHS)?

SB: I’ve had a fabulous career, with many opportunities over the last 25 years. I have worked as an Infectious Diseases Physician; in Public Health; as a Director of Clinical Services; as a Dean in Academia; and as the Chief Executive of a large private hospital.

Over the years I have deliberately collected these experiences, with a view to being able to contribute to an Area Health Service role where the span of control crosses all sectors of health. The HSP Board structure also makes the role more interesting, as it enables the opportunity to work with the Board on strategic matters.

At this particular juncture in my career, I wanted to rejoin the public sector so that I could give back some of the skills that I have honed through these many roles and opportunities. I have also observed my colleagues in the public sector through COVID-19 times, and noted their resilience and hard work, and I felt that I should be making a broader contribution at this challenging time.

Lastly, I remain very motivated by the fact that excellent healthcare should be available to everyone. I have learnt a great deal in the private health sector, and hope to bring some of that customer focus to our patient experience. Heading into my second month, I am delighted to be a public servant again.

Q. NMHS is one of the largest and most complex health services in WA, with a number of ongoing prominent challenges – Graylands Hospital, the new Women and Babies Hospital, etc. What is going to be at the top of your priority list?

SB: As a health service, we are continuing to evolve and adapt to the demands of the pandemic, and over the coming months we can expect to enter a recovery phase. At the same time, it is essential that we refocus on our core priorities as a health system. With many of our services held up by the pandemic, renewed focus will be needed on elective wait lists and outpatients.

I have a deep and enduring commitment to excellent patient care, staff wellbeing and safety, research and innovation; however, good buildings, modern environments, medical equipment and digital support are also essential to providing excellent care.

There are definitely operational priorities to be achieved immediately, and then goals for the medium and longer term. The operational priorities will be to improve patient flow through the North system, and hopefully reduce emergency department waiting times; focus on reducing wait times for both elective surgery procedures and outpatient appointments; and work with our community partners, including general practice and residential care providers, on avoidable admissions and better pathways home for our patients.

As well as the Joondalup Health Campus Expansion Project, NMHS is also focused on two other very high priority building projects. Supported by significant interagency leadership and cooperation, NMHS is building a business case for the development of a new Graylands Forensic facility, and has commenced planning for the new Women’s and Newborn Hospital (and associated services) project.

I am excited to be part of these amazing landmark projects which will change the lives of so many people. Contributing to the new Women’s and Newborn Hospital is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to assist in creating a world-class service for the women and families of Western Australia.

Strategically, I hope to encourage research and innovation, and support the excellent research footprint already in NMHS, plus enhance our digital strategy and offerings – and yes, definitely bring our services into the future through new buildings and models of care.

Q. Clinician workforce morale across WA Health has dipped to dangerously low levels as a result of several factors – some COVID-related, others of a more historical nature (inadequate access to leave, lack of engagement between doctors and executive, etc). How do you plan to create cut-through to clinicians working at NMHS?

SB: Being a clinician has always been hard, and the pressures of COVID-19 have made that role even harder. My approach to clinician engagement is always to put myself ‘on the other side’ so that I am more open to listening and understanding their circumstances. I can still remember being a junior doctor and feeling somewhat powerless when submitting leave forms, working overtime, and all the pressures that come with the territory. In fact, that sense of not being able to change anything is one of the reasons I decided to go into management. I value the contribution and the views of all doctors and clinicians, and will be actively seeking their views on decisions, including models of care, medical equipment and buildings. I intend to do this by meeting with the Clinical Staff Associations, departmental meetings, and creating a forum for open dialogue.

Most importantly, the foundation for clinical engagement is respect. I trust that through visible leadership and open dialogue, I will be able to listen and engage the clinical workforce, and hopefully create some hope. Staff wellbeing and a better culture is the key to a great hospital and health service, and I am committed to working on this as a key outcome for NMHS.

Q. What advice would you give doctors considering a move from clinical medicine to medical administration? Is there any specific advice you’d offer female clinicians?

SB: The first premise of any role is to be genuinely interested in it. Anyone considering moving into medical administration should ideally be well organised, a good communicator, and have a passion for improvement.

When young doctors ask me about commencing FRACMA training, I recommend that first they should be a good doctor. I believe good administrators should have had significant clinical experience prior to admin training, as it very much adds to empathy for colleagues, and an understanding of the complexity of the hospital and healthcare system.

I do occasionally give advice to female colleagues, as we all have life lessons to share. One of those reflections is that you can have everything, but sometimes you can’t have it all at the same time. By that I mean that life has a great deal to offer, and it is sometimes necessary to have different priorities for different times – pace yourself so that you can enjoy the many amazing things that life presents (family, work and travel!).

Q. What does leadership mean to you, and who has inspired you in your career so far?

SB: I believe that leadership is different to management. In my experience there are many good managers but few good leaders. Great leaders should lead from the front, be authentic, be visible, and demonstrate compassion and respect. I believe in the type of leader who walks the floors and knows people’s names, and who truly values everyone’s contribution to the workplace.

I also have a particular view on loving your work and demonstrating that in the workplace. We spend an enormous amount of time at work, and my style of leadership is about bringing that love to work. My passion for person-centred care has inspired me every day of my medical career.

Through the years I have been inspired by many women, including Prof Tania Sorrell AM (Director of the Marie Bashir Institute for Infectious Diseases and Biosecurity) who was my first mentor, and who has mentored many female physicians over many years. She is a strong leader and a superb physician, and it was truly inspirational to work for her as a young doctor.

Most recently I have had the privilege of meeting our past Governor, Kerry Sanderson AC, who is an incisive leader but at the same time demonstrates enormous kindness and compassion.

I have also had the privilege of working for Dr Neale Fong, Mr Peter Mott, Dr Shane Kelly, and now Dr Russell-Weisz (our DG). Each of these great leaders has assisted my development and inspired me throughout my leadership journey. I am grateful for being exposed to leadership delivered with compassion, empathy and authenticity.