New CMO reflects on remarkable first few weeks

Latest News 13 February 2020 | Three days into Pete Watson’s new role as Chief Medical Officer at Counties Manukau Health he found himself in the midst of an unprecedented medical crisis.

The December 9 Whakaari/White Island eruption in which 21 people lost their lives attracted global media attention and saw Dr Watson fronting for interviews with numerous international outlets, describing the specialist medical care of the victims at Middlemore Hospital.

While certainly overwhelming, Dr Watson, formerly the clinical director of Mental Health at CM Health, says the experience reinforced his belief in the organisation’s people and values. 

“In your wildest dreams you would never have imagined such an event happening like it has. Suddenly you’re at ground zero.  But it is an incredible team here. Amazing people doing incredible work and I think the willingness of people to step up and do all the extra hours and hours of work was amazing.  So you sort of felt like you were part of something bigger than yourself.”

The experience showed values of the organisation, in particular manaakitanga – or care and compassion – are alive and well, he says.

During the crisis, Dr Watson says he was also struck by the public’s generosity.  People offered everything from cakes to their own skin. In subsequent announcements doctors corrected the misperception that donations could come from living donors.

“Everybody wanted to contribute in any way they could.”

He says he was also impressed with the way that other DHBs, both in the Auckland region and wider, were prepared to offer up assistance.

By being thrown in the deep end he learned a lot in a very short period, Dr Watson says.

“I started off the week being completely lost in a part of the hospital system that was a dim memory from my days as a junior doctor. Now I actually can find my own way to theatre! I have met a lot of our staff. People have got to know me fast and I have got to know them fast.”

Like everyone required to pause business as usual tasks for the White Island response, he now has a lot to catch up on. He is excited about developing in the new role, albeit wistful about leaving mental health – an area that has seen much progress in recent years.

From the new state-of-the-art inpatient facility, Tiaho Mai to the gradual development of mental health services in the community, Dr Watson says there is much to be proud of.

In his new role as Chief Medical Officer he will focus strongly on improving equity of health outcomes for all.

“There’s a huge amount of evidence that there are different outcomes for different groups. It is unfair and it is unjust. The first thing is to recognise it, understand it and then put things in place to address it.”

Examining unconscious bias, which includes an awareness that generally health professionals are better at working with people from their own backgrounds, will be key, he says.

“People are way better at communicating with and supporting people like themselves. We just are.

“Another part of it is that we attribute the way people behave to certain assumptions we make in our world. For example, if someone doesn’t turn up for an appointment we might say ‘well, it can’t be important to them’. In fact it might be really important to them but what is more important is the need to earn some money to put food on the table.

“We need to better understand and recognise the drivers of different behaviours and circumstances.”

Dr Watson also notes that the structure and facilities of the health system itself can cause inequalities – such as automated appointment times that don’t take account of people’s employment or parenting responsibilities, and room sizes and visiting times that don’t accommodate whaanau.

As well as progressing health equity, Dr Watson wants to focus on empowering clinicians to become strong leaders.

“Clinical people need to lead, so part of my role is to grow excellent leaders who are doctors, nurses and allied health workers.  They are the clinical experts but they can also be great leaders. I will be looking to help them do that.”

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