Emily Chantiri speaks to Professor Christine Kilpatrick about her career in medicine and the growing demands on Australian healthcare providers.
After graduating from Melbourne Medical School, Professor Christine Kilpatrick FAICD chose neurology as her area of speciality. A student of Methodist Ladies’ College Melbourne, Kilpatrick credits her education as being part of the reason she pursued medicine.
“My parents were not doctors, but I went to a girls school which encouraged its students to do whatever they chose. They didn’t put boundaries around us, so the concept of doing whatever I wanted to do was not foreign,” she says.
In the late seventies, Kilpatrick says neurology was considered a “thinking” rather than a “doing” specialty. “I emphasise that it is very different today,” she adds.
“This is what appealed to me as I was always interested in being a physician rather than a surgeon. I’m not a very practical personal in the physical or technical sense. The physician training appealed to me.”
Kilpatrick soon landed an internship at Royal Melbourne Hospital (RMH). “I found neurology fascinating and I enjoyed it. I was appointed a resident to work with the neurology team at RMH.”
Shortly after her internship, Kilpatrick completed her college of physician’s exams and moved into epilsepsy, a sub-specialty of neurology.
“While I was working at the Royal Melbourne in the late nineties, I realised that I needed to have a sub- specialty. I recall there were only a small number of neurologists then, and there wasn’t a lot of focus on the area of epilepsy, so I drew my focus to it.”
Things have changed significantly: “Knowledge has grown and there is more we can do in the area of neurology, including epilepsy, than before. It’s a facet you’ll see in all areas of medicine.”
It was during this period of time that Kilpatrick found herself drawn to research. “I enjoyed both sides of the profession. I loved working in the public hospital practice and in the research area at the Royal Melbourne.”
Kilpatrick’s dedication to clinical and academic leadership led to her being appointed to establish and then run the epilepsy program at the RMH, which she did for eleven years. Her move towards research and management also coincided with several new appointments.
The first was her role as chair of the senior medical staff at the RMH.
“This was part-time and it was a great honour to take on this role,” she says. “The role opened my eyes to how the hospital ran. I represented the medical staff to the hospital’s board. I came into contact with board members and through this insight, into the organisational aspects of the hospital. I became very interested.”
Her next appointment was another part-time position as divisional director, her first step into a management role.
In 2004, another opportunity presented itself in the role of executive director of medical services at public healthcare provider, Melbourne Health. This was a full-time position and Kilpatrick gave up neurology practice to take on the role.
“Looking back, my transition into managerial roles was progressive,” she says. “It was a great opportunity and at the time I recall thinking that I would like to do something other than neurology before I retire. I wasn’t sure whether it would be on a board or management; the management path came my way.”
Kilpatrick decided to embark on further studies to enhance her managerial prospects. “I thought about my future and the prospects of becoming a chief executive officer (CEO),” she adds. “I realised I needed further credentials, so I completed an MBA. This gave me experience and credibility and it has helped me in my journey to becoming a CEO.”
Under the Melbourne Health umbrella, Kilpatrick became the executive director of Royal Melbourne Hospital, a role she says was operational. In 2008, she was appointed the CEO of the Royal Children’s Hospital Melbourne (RCH).
In her nine years leading RCH there have been several major developments. The first was the hospital’s move to a new, state of the art facility in nearby parklands in 2011.“This was a $1 billion project,” she says. “It’s a magnificent building by any standards. This was totally new design, to encourage change and a new model of care.
“It was a huge undertaking to move the hospital’s 4,800 staff; not just themselves but also to move their hearts and minds, which was harder. We also moved 200 patients on the day and took them all across safely.”
Making a difference
Another significant focus under her leadership has been the strengthening of the relationship between the RCH and the University of Melbourne. The creation of the Melbourne Childrens’s Campus through the university’s Department of Paediatrics and the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute, has facilitated cooperative research, clinical care and education.
“My background as a physician, with more of an academic bent, is towards research and education to improve the quality of care we deliver. One attraction of the Children’s Hospital is that we have these three entities on site, so collectively we refer to ourselves as ‘Melbourne Children’s’.”
Kilpatrick says all three units work closely together to ensure clinicians have the best possible resources available while undertaking the research, which is governed by the Murdoch Institute.
“This translates into improved clinical practice. We train and update our clinicians regularly and this has been a main focus of mine. I think it’s fair to say it has been very successful.”
Another initiative under her leadership was the hospital’s move away from being paper-based in 2016 to “live” with new electronic medical records.
“In one space we went live across the whole organisation at once. We are probably the first public hospital to do this. It’s been a success and while it’s not over, this is a great achievement for the organisation.”
During her career, Kilpatrick also served Victoria’s health services through her membership of the Women’s and Children’s Health Board and chairmanship of the Victorian Quality Council.
In 2015, she was appointed a fellow of the Australian Academy of Health and Medical Sciences. She was awarded a Centenary medal in 2003 and in 2014 was included in the Victorian Honour Roll of Women.
Change and challenges
One area of challenge is meeting the needs of the patient. “The challenge for clinicians today, and I experience this myself, is the focus on the patient in front of you, or in other words, the one-on-one relationship. This is what we are trained to deliver and of course this is what the patient wants.
“However, when you are running a hospital you are looking after large cohorts of patients, both in the hospital and the many more waiting to come into the hospital.”
Kilpatrick says the big challenge in health today is the ageing population and the general growth in healthcare demand.
“There is a significant growth in the demand and cost of healthcare. We are looking at ways to be more efficient in order to provide high quality care to more people with the resources we have. This is the biggest challenge at the moment.”
This year, Kilpatrick will be stepping down from her role at the hospital. “I’ve been here almost nine years, and while there is no question that I have enjoyed my time, I am a believer in the need to renew leadership. I think it’s good for the organisation to have a new leader, one who will take the hospital to the next level.”
Kilpatrick will return to Melbourne Health Services. “I will be leading the organisation and it will be a great privilege to do this in the role of CEO.”
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