In recent years, there has been unprecedented investment (many billions) by government and partnering organisations in large scale health and innovation precincts, the vast majority anchored around our major teaching hospitals in NSW. The precise definition of a health precinct is still being debated: but in essence it reflects the clustering of networked and place-based activity seeking to advance health outcomes for the community. Precincts can vary in maturity, but large-scale health & innovation precincts in Randwick, Westmead, Camperdown and Liverpool are now sufficiently progressed to reflect on our progress and how they might contribute to real transformation in health.

There’s an allure to rapid large-scale hospital redevelopments emerging across the state but something is emerging that is perhaps less visible to the general community and, in my view, even more important.

As consumers we expect innovation in most aspects of our lives. Consider the smartphone, some of what it is does is cosmetic and obvious, but some aspects, like the development of internet banking and face recognition technology, reflect much work behind the scenes by collaborative teams to reform ways of working and how consumers engage.

Australia has one of the finest health care systems in the world. Prior to the pandemic, however, change to our health system had been mostly incremental, and some areas have been slow to adapt to evolving consumer expectations. We still go to hospital when we are sick, and our experience of the health system can, at times, be one of inefficiency and poor coordination. The pandemic upended nearly every aspect of our lives – how we live and work, how we order products and services and how supply chains deliver them. It also upended health. When we were required to change quickly, our health precincts responded, and innovation flourished. We saw rapid prototyping of medical solutions (e.g. ventilators) across health precinct teams, and across organisational boundaries. We must now resist the human tendency to maintain the status quo and have our priorities firmly on the health system as being ripe for transformation.

The Government’s unprecedented investment in new facilities signals the start of this transformation and is important. But behind the scenes education institutions, industry, government, health partners and the community are partnering in new ways to radically transform health care in Australia. Universities are electing to put their research spaces within the four walls of our hospitals – a huge step forward in bringing academia closer to the patient bedside. This bench to bedside link ensures our scientists think about patients and translation. It also ensures our doctors think about and keep up with the science, raising the academic culture in our health system.

Precinct stakeholders are also sitting down to discuss the real issues: the gaps in clinical care, the bottlenecks which prevent us from sharing health data, the inequities of health, what the health system of the future will look like and how best to rapidly translate our world-class research for better health care outcomes. We are piloting new innovations and connecting our health communities to ensure we can better impact at scale.

If we get it right, there is also a real possibility in Australia of genuine partnerships between health precincts, each with their complementary areas of specialisation. As a nation, we would have a much better chance of securing and aligning the critical mass needed for research to be meaningful and impactful. Governments would thank us for ensuring their finite resources could be invested strategically to addresses the current issues of equity and access, and advance health outcomes for all Australians.

The opportunity in health precincts is far greater in my view than bricks and mortar. Cross-organisational collaboration, such as that which is being fostered in new ways between our state’s leading universities, industry and health partners, brings clusters, critical mass and change. If we get this right, and can maintain the momentum, this will be the beating heart of truly successful health precincts.

Zoe Terpening is Director, Strategy & Precincts at UNSW


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