Next up in our special COVID-19 series on Fireside Chat, we sat down with Stewart Dowrick, Chief Executive of Mid North Coast Local Health District (MNCLHD) in Australia. We discussed the COVID-19 pandemic, which is tracking similarly in Australia and the United States.

Stewart earned his undergraduate degree from the University of South Wales and his graduate degree from the University of Newcastle. He has been an executive at MNCLHD since 2011.

The healthcare systems in the U.S. and Australia are governed and managed in similar ways. MNCLHD is located in New South Wales and is similar to many of the large health systems we have here in the U.S. It’s four hours north of Sydney and has a high aging population, with 25% of its residents over 65.

“We’re the most self-sufficient, rural, regional Local Health District –South Wales. 94% of acute care is delivered in our footprint,” Stewart says. “So it’s a little bit different than others who rely on people to go out-of-area.”

The Australian healthcare system is a hybrid system made up of both public and private sector providers and services.

“In Australia, after the age of 30, you must take out private health insurance or you pay a higher levy on your tax,” Stewart says.

Bracing for COVID-19

The novel coronavirus, or COVID-19, was recently declared a global pandemic by the World Health Organization (WHO). As we watch exponential growth unfold around the world – including the U.S. and Australia – health systems, hospitals, and care providers are bracing for cases to strain the healthcare system.

Because the virus is so new, emerging research dictates continuous changes to how medical personnel approach treating it.

“Coronavirus is a moving constant,” Stewart says. “Every day or two, there’s a change in some of the advice we get.”

Hospitals: preparing for increased capacity

According to Stewart, hospitals all over Australia are increasing their capacity in anticipation of a surge in COVID-19 cases. There are 15 local health districts in New South Wales, and they’re working cooperatively to upscale intensive care facilities and share lessons learned.

“We’re definitely planning for increased ICU capacity and surge bed capacity, and we’ll keep doing this and looking at options within our facilities,” he says.

“The aim of Australia and New South Wales is to not have that spike. We’re expecting anywhere from a 20 to 25% increase [in capacity].”

Stewart says the district hopes to see a gradual increase in cases over the coming months because of increased capacity.

“We’re trying to flatline that expected increase as opposed to having a dramatic spike like in Italy or Spain,” he says. “It’s overwhelmed everybody, where we’re trying to maintain it and do the best to manage that increase.”

Disaster planning in the medical field

Until this storm passes, Stewart says it’s important for health systems worldwide to plan and prepare accordingly for the pandemic to strike locally.

This is a once-in-a-generation – maybe a century –issue, and history will tell,” he says. “You and your team can do your best to plan and prepare, but it will bring attention to areas of weakness. We’re going to put a greater focus on preparation, planning, and contingency.”

When it comes to facing emergency situations, the medical field is the best at responding well. He advocates taking one day at a time as we navigate this worldwide crisis.

“The aim is to try to be calm. I think sometimes, we’re at our best in emergency situations,” Stewart says. “We should try to stay calm and address the issues as they arise.”

To listen to the full conversation, click here.