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An interview with Deanne Leaver, Director Asset Strategy, Victorian Health and Human Services Building Authority (VHHSBA), by Linda Kemp, Communications Specialist, Asset Management Council.

During shutdown, I have been intrigued to learn how businesses are managing through this crisis. One area that kept my focus was our health sector. Obviously. Those at the frontline, working with little regard to their own health captured the attention of us all. But I was also interested in the physical assets: the buildings, the respirators, the number of ICU beds, and how government departments are adapting in this time of crisis. And to answer these questions, I contacted Deanne Leaver, from VHHSBA, and architect of the famed Babushka Dolls analogy, to see if she could squeeze in a brief chat with me to share the department’s progress through the coronavirus shutdown. 

The COVID pandemic created an unprecedented challenge for intensive care facilities and, while the health system in Victoria is robust, a surge in caseload presentations was nonetheless expected. One of VHHSBA’s key priorities is to ‘develop and maintain an asset base that is capable of meeting clinical services standards, now and into the future’. To achieve such a priority, preparation is paramount.

As COVID-19 became the priority within the health department, VHHSBA re-pivoted to help the sector respond to the pandemic. Victoria has a 20,000 bed capacity across Victoria’s health providers, but as international media highlighted in countries gravely affected, a lack of preparedness within ICU and critical care units would manifest in the loss of numerous lives. VHHSBA worked alongside Victoria’s health services to face the expected surge in COVID caseloads, adapting current spaces by adding physical assets including suction and power points, changing mechanical ventilation systems and creating more space around beds. This was rapidly and deftly achieved across Victorian hospital sites and health services.

In further preparing assets for COVID, Deanne mentions two key projects within VHHSBA that were fast-tracked in order to cope with demand. The accelerated completion of Monash Health’s Casey Tower brought an additional 140 beds online, and the redevelopment of Shepparton Hospital doubled the capacity of the emergency department and made available a further 88 beds for patients. VHHSBA also recommissioned two disused hospitals. In Geelong, the recommissioning work for Barwon Health opened fifty respiratory clinical rooms, and in Melbourne, the old Peter Mac site recently completed will see a further 84 beds added to the hospital system. VHHSBA was also ready for action to temporarily alter the Melbourne Convention Centre, however, due to the state government’s quick reaction in containment measures, including the message for individuals to stay home, such repurposing work was not required.

VHHSBA has a clear line of sight on many positive stories rising out of this crisis. Deanne’s team adapted well to a remote work environment. The key platforms required to support such a shift, including videoconferencing tools, were already in place, given extensive planning over the previous eighteen months due to a change in their office location and a conscious realignment of workplace culture. The enforced transition to remote workstations was a smooth one, underpinned by Deanne’s strong leadership and clever use of the metaphor of her team moving from training for a marathon, to running in the actual event. Primarily, though, Deanne labels what she’s witnessed, both within her own department and across the wider health portfolio, as a ‘team of teams’: many people working together with a common objective, and sharing loads.

Another positive from COVID is an increase in uptake of the telehealth service for outpatients, which will continue to reshape the delivery of health services in the future. With a wider acceptance from individuals of telehealth, hospitals are therefore able to be used and accessed for high acuity care. The department is currently working on an evaluation piece around the use telehealth and how this important infrastructure can be further utilised and sustained in the future.

Even in a crisis, maintenance of assets must remain a priority. VHHSBA introduced stringent guidelines on infrastructure activities in hospitals during a pandemic. This included preventative, essential, reactive and routine maintenance activities as well as construction and capital works to ensure the continued operation of hospitals was not affected and the spread of infection, safety of patients, staff and the community was maintained. Physical assets under VHHSBA’s portfolio inside the hospital environment, including air-conditioning and handling units that held potential for contamination had additional cautionary measures implemented such as maintenance crew embracing a wider uptake of PPE, maintaining social distancing during shifts, breaks, toolbox meetings and at change of shifts and regular cleaning, including tools. 

Deanne adds that she recently had the privilege of being a participant in a Zoom conference with emergency workers at New York’s Tisch Hospital. Interestingly, as New York State was faced with overwhelming numbers of COVID infected patients, the hospital was working hand-to-mouth, running out of supplies inside the hospital as more were being unloaded in the loading bay. During the conference call, Deanne was able to pose the question of what element in the pandemic took the hospital by surprise. The unequivocal response was an under-supply of medical gases and liquid oxygen needed to respirate patients. Deanne took relief in knowing that her team had been well prepared. Risk mitigation analysis and subsequent strategies by VHHSBA in March, as the crisis crept across the ocean, included increasing oxygen supply contracts, and upgrading storage vessel capacity across a number of hospital sites.

Without a doubt, Victoria and Australia have handled this crisis extremely well by international standards. The government’s quick and decisive action, coupled with the majority of the community following advice on containment measures enabled Victoria to keep infection rates relatively low, and our frontline staff equipped to do their jobs.

Deanne ends our time together by proudly stating that VHHSBA’s multi-pronged strategy and a planned ability to pivot and adapt on their scheduled projects meant that the department itself was poised and ready for such a crisis, even before coronavirus reared its crowned head onto the horizon.

And that’s a positive experience of asset management through a global pandemic.

Linda Kemp wishes to thank Deanne Leaver for taking time out of a busy schedule to speak regarding VHHSBA’s asset management experience through COVID.