Heading up health in southern Adelaide

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By Melissa Keogh

After a decade of driving change across public and private hospitals in Victoria, South Australian healthcare professional Sue O’Neill is back.

Sue is the Southern Adelaide Local Health Network’s (SALHN) new CEO, overseeing the Flinders Medical Centre, Noarlunga Hospital and other public healthcare services in the southern suburbs.

Her return home comes at a time of great change in South Australia’s healthcare system, following the opening of the world-class Royal Adelaide Hospital (RAH) in 2017.

But south of the new RAH are lesser-known healthcare developments, particularly in the areas of palliative care and rehabilitation.

Last year Flinders Medical Centre unveiled a new 55-bed rehabilitation centre and a 15-bed palliative care unit, replacing facilities at the now closed Daw Park Repatriation Hospital.

Sue, second from left, with team members at the Flinders Medical Centre.

“There are great hospitals and health services in the south and I think we’ve been quiet achievers,” Sue says.

“That’s one of my goals as CEO, to help people be less humble about the great things that we do and know that we are an important engine for healthcare here in SA.”

The cluster of facilities within SALHN employs about 7500 staff who care for 800 in-patients daily.

Doctors and nurses treat 250,000 outpatients every year with more than 400 people presenting to the emergency departments at the Flinders and Noarlunga hospitals daily.

Sue says she expects that the patient cohort will continue to consist largely of elderly patients with lifestyle diseases as the state’s ageing population continues to climb.

“We’re expecting to see an almost 70% increase in the number of people aged over 70 in our demographic area, so things like cancer and cardiac conditions will become more prominent,” she says.

Sue returned to SA late last year after spending 10 years in public and private hospitals in Victoria.

Born in Naracoorte, she spent her childhood knowing that one day she would become a nurse, and so upon leaving school she set about achieving just that and worked at the RAH as a nurse for two decades.

She later went on to become the Director of Nursing at the Lyell McEwin Hospital and Flinders Medical Centre until 2009, when the eastern states started calling.

Taking the opportunity to “move outside my comfort zone”, Sue entered Victoria’s private healthcare system, working at an 800-bed Catholic hospital, Cabrini Health.

In 2012 she began her pursuit towards achieving a Master of Business Administration (Executive) at RMIT University, allowing her to raise her hand for executive healthcare roles.

It would lead to becoming CEO at an Albury Wodonga Health and later the same position at St Vincent’s Hospital, Melbourne.

“I’ve always been a strong SA advocate when I’ve been in the eastern states, and I always barrack for the Crows wherever I am,” Sue says.

“The important thing is that we have people who have voices who can tell the SA story.

“I always felt able to do that and I kept my connections here as well to gain another perspective.

“I’ve learnt a lot but it’s helped to open my eyes and I think I’ll be a better CEO because of it.”

Sue says her goal for the next five years is to work towards ways of reducing the demand on the healthcare system and improving patient outcomes and quality of life.

She’s also passionate about improving the appeal of jobs within health.

“One of the key things for me is how do we create an environment that attracts the best and brightest,” she says.

“My goal is to create an environment where we have a waiting list of people who want to work in the SALHN because they feel respected, they can do the work they want to do, they create good clinical outcomes and there’s good opportunities for development, teaching, training and research.

“Co-located with a large university (Flinders) like we are – we have some fantastic opportunities.”

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