By John Dooley

BARELY a week goes by when the Mildura Base Public Hospital (MBPH) doesn’t break new ground in their quest to become a centre of excellence for health care service provision in our region and this week was no exception with the announcement of their grand plan to establish an Academic Health Precinct in Mildura.

The MBPH is currently in the process of developing its master plan to determine what is needed as a health care provider in this region, which hopefully will include a new hospital on a greenfield site. The master plan is expected to be completed in April.

MBPH CEO Terry Welch was incredibly excited about the prospect of Mildura being the location for a cutting edge Academic Health Precinct, which would attract some of the best clinicians and researchers to the region.

In a discussion with the Mildura Weekly, Mr Welch highlighted the immense benefits such a facility would deliver for the region.

“Partnering in the way that we are going to with La Trobe and Monash, in an integrated model, will give students a way to learn like never before,” he said.

“It will create opportunities for clinicians to educate, do research and conduct clinical trials.

“We see this as a once in a lifetime opportunity aligned to a master plan, to be able to build a true university health service here in the northern Mallee under the banner of the Academic Health Precinct.

“What do we expect out of it? Long term recruitment, long term retention, wonderful opportunities for students coming out of Year 12, people who want to study from anywhere. We will become a beacon for academia and it will be a highlight project for many years to come.”

Mr Welch said that historically anyone who has been a local for any time in Mildura will quickly tell you how difficult recruitment is.

“We have seen it through the pandemic, we’ve seen it now for 18 months, as we have run this business as a health service learning a lot about it,” he said.

“We have done some amazing recruitment there is no doubt about that. But at the same time there is that day on day challenge of having a sustainable workforce moving forward.

“We had two options really. We could follow the lead of others and try and hang off the coat tails of what has been tried in the past, or we could pursue something which was completely innovative which would transform the landscape in Mildura and that is an Academic Health Precinct.”

Mr Welch said that there was no shortage of people who would be eager to work in Mildura at the Precinct.

“A lot of people are interested in research and training in rural and regional health and what do we offer? Rural and regional all in the one,” he said.

“In that context there are wonderful opportunities for all of the things that we want to do. Medical and nursing training are happening here now, but the problem is, it isn’t integrated.”

Head of School of Monash Rural Health Professor Shane Bullock said the school was excited about working with their partners, Mildura Base Public Hospital and La Trobe University, in proposing the development of an Academic Health Precinct.

“The impact of the maldistribution of the health workforce between metropolitan and rural communities is very apparent in the Sunraysia district,” Professor Bullock said.

“Health workforce shortages can lead to poorer access to healthcare and poorer health outcomes for this community.

“The Academic Health Precinct will bring together the education, clinical and research leaders of the region at one location.

“The opportunity for greater collaboration and innovation between these partners in the local training and professional development of doctors, nurses and allied health practitioners, as well as in engaging in local collaborative health-related research, could be very attractive for young people to stay in the region. Such an outcome would greatly benefit the community.”

La Trobe University Vice Chancellor and president, Professor John Dewar, is also enthusiastic about the opportunities the Precinct would offer.

“As Victoria’s largest provider of regional higher education, La Trobe University already has a strong and established footprint in Mildura,” Professor Dewar said.

“Our highly regarded courses in areas such as nursing and allied health provide a pipeline of talented graduates who contribute to the regional health workforce.

“The proposed Academic Health Precinct with the Mildura Base Public Hospital will provide even greater opportunities for local students, as well as offering pathways to other universities to complete medical degrees, producing much-needed regional and rural doctors.

“With its state-of-the-art facilities, the Precinct will also importantly attract world-leading researchers and industry partners and will provide a venue for clinical trials and other critical research infrastructure.

Precinct a game changer for students

Mr Welch said if the region had an Academic Health Precinct it would be a game changer for students.

“They will walk through our front door everyday and work within this values-based organisation,” he said.

“They will have the ability to have multi-disciplined training like nowhere else − in a simulation centre that will be state-or-the-art.

“This is not just putting a shed at the back of the block and saying that is our training facility. This is an integrated program of works which means the universities − both of them − will be in our hospital and it will be a learning space and an opportunity like we have never seen before and probably not thought of before in an area like the northern Mallee.

“Picture a six storey hospital − this is an example not something drafted − and the fifth floor of that is a university.

“That’s what we are talking about − true integration − so that the students from day one, feel part of the MBPH family.

They feel part of the opportunity to learn and we have pathways for them to learn and develop.

“Let’s be honest, we are not connected at the moment. Monash is close, but La Trobe is four kilometres away and those students are disconnected from us.

“They come to placement and then they go again. Under the Academic Health Precinct model, there will be no going from us again, they will be part of MBPH and part of what is going to be an incredible precinct. It won’t matter what you are training in medicine, allied health, whatever it may be, this will be a unique opportunity.”

Mr Welch said that the aside to that is when you have that integration and true academia, health professionals love to do research.

“They love to do research and development and to be part of clinical trials, something we aren’t currently doing,” he said.

“And so that is the other arm to this. We will build a centre of excellence around research and true clinical trials, about being at the forefront rather than being on the coat tails of what happens and that will make a huge difference to health outcomes moving forward.”

Mr Welch was asked if being exposed to a working hospital from day one would be a significant, immediate benefit to students and give them a better insight into the careers that they are moving into.

“No question it will. I see the ability for students who are engaged through La Trobe or Monash to be able to go and seek and source health professionals anywhere to learn and seek the benefit of their experience,” he said.

Member for Mallee, Anne Webster, is certainly on board with the idea for an Academic Health Precinct having been a long time proponent of a Biomed course at La Trobe University campus in Mildura.

“Something I have been spruiking for sometime is the nature of a tri-state medical hub because of where we are situated,” she said.

“Being an artery from Bendigo is not a solution for health care delivery.

And we need to ramp up the integration with tertiary education and that’s why I have been pushing for the undergraduate Biomed course and ‘wet lab’ at La Trobe University.

“It’s essential and key to driving this process forward. We need to have a pipeline from secondary school through tertiary and postgraduate.

“That doesn’t just mean doctors who are critical, but importantly, it also means increasing our nursing and our allied health capacity.

“The vision for the hospital as a training site has certainly been the subject of discussions I have been having with both the public and private hospitals, as well as the ministers concerned and so they know that this is on the cards.

“I have been having discussions in Canberra with the minister to say how do we make this happen?”

The model for the MBPH Academic Health Precinct will in some ways mirror what is already practiced in the larger metropolitan hospitals.

“I think the integration that we are talking about here will be the cutting edge academic integration with the health service,” Mr Welch said.

“It will need Commonwealth and state funding support and the reality is that we can deliver a once in a lifetime, incredible outcome to solve these problems that have been around for decades.

“Next week I and some of my team will be visiting the Gold Coast and Sunshine Coast hospitals looking and learning.

“The Gold Coast Hospital is a university hospital and we are also visiting the new Canberra University Hospital and so we will come back with the latest and greatest ideas and look to implement them as the minimum.”