Meet the man putting bush bubs on the radar


THE man in charge of solving the state's bush baby crisis has been named Queensland Health's new director-general, pledging rural maternity care will remain a top priority.

John Wakefield, who was the sole hospital doctor in Gin Gin, west of Bundaberg, for seven years in the 1990s, said he would work hard to improve health care for country Queenslanders and not solely focus on "the big end of town and emergency department response times".

In his first interview since taking on Queensland Health's top job, Dr Wakefield said the department was exploring the possibility of developing a midwifery-led birthing service in Cloncurry, east of Mount Isa, for pregnant women deemed at low risk of complications.

Outlining his vision for the next three to five years, he said re-establishing birthing services at Weipa, on the western side of Cape York, with capacity for women to deliver through a caesarean section, was also high on his agenda.

The Palaszczuk Government promised to reopen birthing services in Weipa after a campaign by The Sunday Mail led to the establishment of a Rural Maternity Taskforce, which found babies born in remote areas were 65 per cent more likely to die than those delivered in the city.

Queensland Health’s new Director-General, Dr John Wakefield. Picture: Peter Wallis
Queensland Health’s new Director-General, Dr John Wakefield. Picture: Peter Wallis

But Dr Wakefield would not give a time frame for birthing to begin again in Weipa except to say it was a "medium-term proposition".

"It won't happen tomorrow, but a business case is close to being finalised and once we have the green light, recruitment and preparations can commence," he said. "It's really important that whilst we're determined to do this, that we don't leap in and create something that's going to fail. Safety is important and so is sustainability.

Dr Wakefield said the vision for the Weipa service was for it to be led by rural generalist doctors with training in obstetrics, anaesthetics and general surgical skills.

"I don't just look at this from the perspective of rural birthing," he said. "What's important as a rural clinician - unlike those in bigger centres where you've got specialist obstetricians and midwives - these clinicians are the same people who respond to a car crash or a stroke, a heart attack or if your child has a temperature.

"What this will do, in that capacity building at Weipa, will not only support good maternity services. We'll also be able to deal with a whole lot of other stuff that people have to travel to Cairns for, such as chronic disease care."

Dr Wakefield said his strategy for rural health would include expanding Queensland's telehealth services.

"This state leads the world in telehealth and recently, some of our staff were asked by the United Nations to go and speak and help them plan how they can use telehealth services for their peacekeeping forces in some of the Third World countries," he said.

New Queensland Health Director-General Dr John Wakefield on his first day in the job. Picture: Peter Wallis.
New Queensland Health Director-General Dr John Wakefield on his first day in the job. Picture: Peter Wallis.

In Queensland, telehealth is already being used to deliver chemotherapy and other specialist services at small hospitals and health centres, saving patients having to travel multiple times to city facilities.

"It's like bringing the big hospital to the tiny hospital," Dr Wakefield said. "But there's always going to be things that rural people are going to have to travel for. Our focus has to be making sure that travel is as easy as possible for them and when they get to the other end, it works, they're supported."

Dr Wakefield arrived in Queensland in 1989 from England with wife, Angela, to take up a job at Bundaberg Hospital, expecting to stay for 12 months. They've stayed for 30 years. His own two children, a son and daughter in their twenties, were both born in Bundaberg Hospital.

The 54-year-old said his son was born after a 45-minute ambulance ride "on a pretty windy road" from Gin Gin.

"We hit a kangaroo. I thought we were going to come off the road at one stage," Dr Wakefield said, telling the story to emphasise his empathy for the challenges faced by people living in the bush.

"There's no substitute for having a sense of understanding, particularly for rural people, how important their health service is to them and the people in it."

Dr Wakefield takes over as Director-General from Michael Walsh, who has retired after four years at the helm of Queensland Health.