The new CGH chief on COVID, Gippsland and his new role

Liz Bell

NEW chief executive of Central Gippsland Health, Mark Dykgraaf, concedes his introduction to Sale has largely been hijacked by COVID, which has created massive upheaval and a steady stream of challenges for health services in regional communities.
But for a man with almost four decades of experience in the public, private and corporate sectors, he sees those challenges as the very drivers of change which help fine tune processes and improve organisations.
COVID was already a concern across the health industry by the time Mr Dykgraaf took over from former chief executive Frank Evans in June, so having to meet the demands of changing health needs and new testing and vaccination challenges was not unexpected.
With impressive speed, and with Mr Dykgraaf at the helm, CGH has galvanised health teams and streamlined systems with a clear aim — to keep communities safe, get the vaccination message out, and ensure people have confidence in the systems set up to protect them.
He’s no fan of lockdown, he admits, but Mr Dykgraaf knows from experience that acting quickly and making tough and unpopular decisions to reduce community movement are the keys to saving lives and keeping COVID at bay.
“I’ve been through this before,” he said.
“I can remember the COVID scare at Canberra (Calvary Public Hospital) where there were massive recruitment efforts, a race to source ventilators, and difficult decisions that have to involve everyone working together to protect communities,” he said.
“We know from what’s happened overseas things can get out of control very quickly, and I have no doubt that if we had waited and held off lockdown, it would have got away from us and it would be a very different story.”
The ACT faced its only city-wide lockdown in April last year, which lasted five weeks.
It now has one of the highest rates of vaccination, and has not recorded a positive case in more than a year.
Mr Dykgraaf also points to the United Kingdom as an example of what not to do.
“In the UK, from a population of 68 million, about 138,000 people have died, and if we equate those death rates to Australia’s 27 million people, that means 59,000 people,” he said.
Success in keeping communities safe in regional Australia over the past 18 months have largely been about being “nimble”, Mr Dykgraaf said, and that’s what he believes local health workers are good at.
The recent scare when a coronavirus-infected customer stopped at a Heyfield store put that coordinated nimbleness to the test.
“I am privileged to work with the teams here,” Mr Dykgraaf said.
“We as a health service have had to act quickly, we have responded quickly to coordinate services, including setting up new testing sites at Heyfield and Sale, and are continuing our role as a service provider to support vaccination and screening services to encourage as many people as possible to get vaccinated for their own safety and for the safety of the community,” he said.
“It’s not a new message, but if there is any message I can give out of this it is ‘get tested when you are asked to, and get vaccinated’.
“While I accept free debate, our core message is that if we can get to that critical mass immunity level, we are all a lot safer.”
The day after it was revealed the Timberline General Store in Heyfield was a tier two contact site, a pop-up testing site charged into action to support a nervous community desperate to keep COVID at bay.
By lunchtime people wanting to be tested were lining up in their cars.
“Yes, there was significant demand at Heyfield, but we expected it,” Mr Dykgraaf said.
“We know from experience with local communities that people want to get tested, so we need to make the best use of our resources and be prepared to pull staff from one area to man another, to make sure staff are protected and communities are safe,” he said.
Mr Dykgraaf sees networking and sharing resources as one of the most effective tools of management, and put that into practice when he sent a team of health workers to Philip Island to help with recent events in the Bass Coast.
They responded by sending a team to help with the Heyfield testing blitz.
While his decision to move to Sale with his wife Sally included wanting a change to greener pastures, Mr Dykgraaf says wanting to work in a regional service where community is at the heart of everything people do was “number one”.
“I’ve worked in metro, corporate and rural sectors, but I love the closeness of regional communities like this,” he said.
“Part of that closeness comes from the workforce, and the second part is that here at CGH we run aged care as a public health service, which I believe really helps connect the community.
“You have generations of families here and you can really feel those strong connections to
“I love that.”
Mr Dykgraaf says he and Sally had never lived in Victoria before, but were already smitten with the beautiful Gippsland countryside and the wide open spaces.
While lockdowns have stymied their plans to see more of the region, he has plenty of work to get on with.
CGH already has a strategy plan in place to 2024, so Mr Dykgraaf will work during the next few months with the board and others to determine priorities.
In line with the CGH focus on ‘values-based’ healthcare, there are a number of areas he wants to concentrate on immediately, including the implementation of the electronic record system in the emergency department and eventually across the network.
He is also keen to advocate for maintaining services in the regional health sector, in an environment where governments have been spending up big and the spectre of cuts looms large.
“Efficiency is paramount in the health sector, and I am keen to see what opportunities there are to share resources and work in partnerships with others so that regional services are maintained,” he said.
“We need to look closely at how we can utilise what we have, and going ahead, where we can work with our partners to do more with every available dollar.”
So far COVID has dominated the local resource debate to the point where Mr Dykgraaf is still having daily meetings with other health service chief executives in the region, all guided by the desire to share the load and service regional communities.
He said the conversation was far from over.
“Given what’s happening in Melbourne, what has happened here [with three confirmed cases and a tier two exposure site] it is not unexpected,” he said.
“It’s bound to happen.
“Melbourne is only two and half hours away — it’s in Victorians’ nature to want to go to the city for big sporting events, and that’s what can happen.”

Mark Dykgraaf has a 37-year career in the health care sector. He was most recently director of clinical services for Far West Local Health, Broken Hill. More recent appointments include general manager at Calvary Public Hospital, Canberra; chief of clinical operations, Canberra Hospital and Health Services; executive director of critical care, Canberra Hospital and Health Services; NSW and ACT regional manager for Medibank Health Solutions; and chief executive at St John of God Health Care, Goulburn.