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Healthcare | Infrastructure

Leading a $19 billion health infrastructure portfolio – insights from Rebecca Wark at NSW Health

1 Apr 2021, by Amy Sarcevic

Delivering the second largest infrastructure portfolio in NSW – amid a global pandemic and fast-evolving healthcare delivery landscape – is no easy feat, but it is all in a day’s work for Rebecca Wark, Chief Executive of NSW Health Infrastructure.

Over this term of government, NSW Health will progress the development of around 100 health capital works projects throughout regional and metro NSW. A dozen of these are classed as ‘mega projects’ – upwards of half a billion dollars in value.

Ms. Wark will oversee these major projects, whilst embracing the rise of new and evolving virtual care models, responding to increased public scrutiny of government spending, and managing the ongoing operational challenges that came with COVID-19. Not to mention the dizzying mix of charity board, surf patrol, and parental responsibilities that comprise her personal life.

The secret to her success so far? A delicate balancing act of two competing qualities: discipline and flexibility, she says. The first a key ingredient of delivering large-scale projects on time and within budget. The latter important for embracing innovation – and dodging COVID-related curveballs.

“Thanks to my experience as part of the team developing the 2000 Olympics infrastructure, I can be pretty meticulous when it comes to getting work done in time. There was no toying with the Olympics opening ceremony date, so we had no choice but to deliver the project on schedule. That’s where my discipline comes from,” said Ms. Wark ahead of the SMH Infrastructure Summit.

“That said, without flexibility in our style and approach, we wouldn’t ever take on new ideas – and we certainly wouldn’t have survived the year that was 2020. With physical distancing measures, we had to think on our feet about how we undertook daily operations and channelled capital investment. There was no space for complacency or habitual thinking,” she added.

Changing face of healthcare

Ms. Wark has just completed her Corporate Strategy where she details the outlook for Health Infrastructure’s ‘largest year yet’. Second only in size to the state’s transport infrastructure budget, her plan represents the biggest health capital works portfolio in Australia.

But delivering a pipeline of this magnitude is only part of the challenge. Ms. Wark’s infrastructure outcomes need to respond to the changing face of healthcare, the increasing role of virtual health and the wide-ranging opportunities it brings.

Last year saw a sharp drop in demand for inpatient services and a corresponding rise in virtual care enablers like telehealth and RPM (remote patient monitoring). Paradoxically, though, demand for acute care was projected to soar in the same timeframe, as the COVID-19 pandemic took hold.

Against this uncertain backdrop, ‘grow and diversify’ has been Ms. Wark’s mantra. “There is no point building hospitals if they don’t reflect how services will be delivered in the future. To this end, we have worked extensively with our partners at the Ministry of Health to better understand what the hospital of the future might look like,” she said.

“A key outcome of that has been focussing on wellness and outpatient services. More community and ambulatory care space, greater options for regional services, and not necessarily huge numbers of inpatient units with beds.

“Of course, though, there must be a balance. People will always need to attend hospitals for surgeries, oncology and renal services etcetera. But the focus is on how we blend that, so that time in inpatient settings is minimised.”

Creating space for innovation

Embracing innovation has been another key component of planning and designing health services and facilities. However this does not come without risk – with the rate of disruption rendering the lifecycle of many health assets unpredictable. To this end, adaptability in Ms. Wark’s approach has been key.

“Healthcare infrastructure needs to be flexible enough to accommodate new technologies and, more broadly, new paradigms of care. Regardless of whether it’s a new or retrofitted facility, it’s important to include functional design elements that reflect key megatrends and enable new ways of working,” she said.

Alongside her partnership with the Ministry of Health, Ms. Wark credits her success on this front to her team of ‘innovative, bright minds’, and their flexible working approach.

“The success of our teams rests on good problems solving skills and a ‘can do’ ethos. Bright minds that believe anything is possible have helped us think strategically about what the modern day built form should look like – converting lofty ideas into business as usual,” she said.

This strong team culture has also helped the department shine throughout the COVID response. When the outbreak began, partners at the University of Sydney and UNSW set out to design and build ventilators that could bolster supply for acute care, if needed.

“Volunteer students came up with brilliant ideas, manufacturing parts in 3D printers. There were some really successful outcomes – as sophisticated as the technologies we would typically import,” said Ms. Wark.

Looking ahead

Although the past year has played a key role in strengthening the department’s approach, Ms. Wark is now firmly focussed on the future – including further opportunities for collaboration.

“I’m really proud that Health Infrastructure has such a great reputation for collaborating – and never have our partners and people been more important to us than last year,” she said.

“Now, though, we have a big task ahead of us in delivering our largest pipeline yet, and it’s vital we don’t get complacent.”

Presenting at the Sydney Morning Herald Infrastructure Summit, Rebecca Wark will reflect on the successes of her organisation’s COVID response and talk further about her plans to deliver her Corporate Strategy.

Learn more and register.

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