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Townsville University Hospital marks two decades of care

Published:  09 October 2021

It’s been a monumental couple of decades for Townsville University Hospital which will mark 20 years this Sunday since it relocated from the former North Ward site and opened its doors in Douglas on 10 October 2001.

Townsville Hospital and Health Board Chair Tony Mooney said with 20 years under the hospital’s belt, it was the right time to both celebrate what had been achieved and look optimistically to the future.

“I’m so proud of what’s been achieved in the time I’ve been Chair and 20 years is a fitting time to reflect on how far we’ve come while venturing ambitiously into the future,” he said.

“We’ve solidified our vision to be a leader in healthcare, research and education with advances like the opening of the $5 million Townsville Institute of Health Research and Innovation, the inking of an official memorandum of understanding with James Cook University, and our commitment to linking the hospital and university campuses in a health and knowledge precinct of the future,” he said.

Mr Mooney said the hospital was recognised as a leader in tertiary medicine in 2019, becoming the first regional hospital to become a ‘University Hospital’ joining the ranks of Gold Coast University Hospital, Sunshine Coast University Hospital, The Prince Charles Hospital, Royal Brisbane and Women’s Hospital, and Princess Alexandra Hospital as the major hospitals in Queensland with special designations.

“This recognised our close relationship with James Cook University and our shared desire to make Townsville a world leader in research, diagnostics, and clinical excellence,” he said.

“It also recognised the excellence of our staff in delivering the widest, most sophisticated suite of health services in northern Australia.

“This was very much symbolic of where we see ourselves as a hospital into the future and being on par with, if not better than, metropolitan hospitals across Australia.”

To mark the 20-year milestone, some of the hospital’s longest-serving staff have reflected on the past two decades.

Clinical nurse consultant Anne Illingsworth has looked after pre-term babies for more than 30 years, including the past 20 at the Douglas campus. 

“I’m really proud of the work we do in the neonatal unit and over the years we’ve helped many families, often over many months of an admission, while their babies grew stronger and healthier.

“We’ve also been there for families when their little ones, sadly, didn’t make it home.”

Ms Illingsworth said that the new neonatal unit, which opened in 2012, changed the face of neonatal care in North Queensland.

“We now have improved facilities for families, we have both twin and triplet rooms and more single rooms for the privacy of our families and babies,” she said.

“Our reputation has grown, and we continue to welcome back babies we have cared for who are now happy healthy children and young adults.

“Over the past 20 years we’ve also seen many advances in technology, equipment, and medication which have made a huge difference to the care of neonates.”

But Ms Illingsworth said despite the innovations and advances, the fundamentals of caring for pre-term babies and their families stayed the same.

“As nurses and doctors, we’re still focussed on the basic humanity and compassion that comes with family-centred care.

“When you’re caring for a baby, you’re also caring for a family and that’s a very important part of what we do.

“We’re a small drop in a baby’s life but for a family, they’re there for a lifetime.”

For Michel Tournier, who has worked in the kitchen for 31 years including 20 years at the Douglas site, technology had been the biggest game-changer.

“We now have electronic, rather than paper-based, menus and the equipment in the kitchen is next level,” she said.

Michel said the vast increase in the volume of meals had meant that most foods including salads and desserts now came pre-packaged.

“When I first started, we had someone who would peel the potatoes and pumpkin and prep all the vegetables,” she said.

“We even had a pastry chef to make the desserts.

“That wouldn’t be practical now because of the sheer volume of meals that need to be prepared.”

Michel said she was very proud to still be working at Townsville University Hospital. 

“I love my job, the patient contact, and working as a member of a team,” she said.

“The patients belong to all of us and we all have a role to play in looking after them and giving them the best possible experience.”

Townsville Hospital and Health Service chief executive Kieran Keyes said the increase in clinical activity over 20 years had been staggering.

“Presentations to our emergency department have more than doubled in 20 years with the department seeing 44,180 people in its first year compared with 90,467 already in 2021,” Mr Keyes said.

“The number of patients admitted 20 years ago was around 35,000; in the past 12 months we have admitted more than 99,000,” he said.

Further to providing acute medical care, midwives, nurses, and obstetricians have helped grow North Queensland families helping to deliver 45,445 babies including 1,596 sets of twins and 71 sets of triplets.

“Women and children have been an important theme for the hospital in the past 20 years, with many of the service expansions involving the care for women and children,” Mr Keyes said.

“We’ve expanded the birthing services on offer to women with options such as midwifery-led care and our birth centre which opened in 2008.”

Mr Keyes said the hospital had established services in the past two decades that had had remarkable impacts on the lives of patients.

“In 2015, we established our cochlear implant service which changed the lives of adults and children living with profound deafness,” he said.

“To be able to deliver a service to help restore hearing for infants and children closer to home was a really significant moment.”

In addition to higher patient numbers than ever, the hospital, as it stood 20 years ago, has been completely transformed with new and expanded infrastructure and the delivery of state-of-the-art equipment.

“We are delivering medical, surgical, and cancer care services that we could only have dreamed of 20 years ago and I’m so proud of that,” he said.

Townsville Hospital and Health Service acting chief medical officer Dr Niall Small has worked at the Townsville University Hospital since 1997 spending18 years as the director of the emergency department.

Dr Small said the move to the current site had allowed for many exciting and innovative sub-speciality services.

“One of these is the Townsville Palliative Care Centre which opened on our campus in 2009,” he said.

“That was quite an innovative concept at the time to have an on-site centre dedicated to caring for people at the end of their life.”

Dr Small said another ground-breaking sub-speciality service at the current hospital was the hyperbaric chamber.

“It is one of the biggest hyperbaric chambers in the southern hemisphere,” he said.

“At North Ward we had a small one that fitted two patients and I actually found myself in it after getting the bends from diving when I was a back-packing doctor.”

Dr Small said being situated in Douglas also meant the hospital had Queensland’s only helipad, capable of landing multiple helicopters.

“It was also capable of landing large military helicopters and situated right next to the emergency department which was a huge asset,” he said.

“Previously helicopters with patients had to land at Queens Park or the airport.”

In the past 20 years, Townsville University Hospital has seen multi-million-dollar redevelopment and capital upgrades that included the Townsville Cancer Centre, new maternity and gerontology units, and a sub-acute care unit.

North Queensland’s children and babies have also benefited with the opening of upgraded and expanded neonatal and special care units, the region’s first-ever paediatric day oncology unit, and a state-of-the paediatric ward.

The hospital also welcomed a new pharmacy, kitchen, and medical records department since opening on the new site.

Mr Keyes said the hospital was a moving feast that continued to grow and evolve in line with community needs.

“The ongoing redevelopment is testament to our growth and evolution as the region’s only tertiary facility and the teaching and learning partners of universities across Queensland, including, of course, our own James cook University,” he said.

Mr Keyes said services for people living with mental illness and kidney disease were also the focus of new developments.

“In 2016, we opened the $13.5 million Alec Illin Secure Mental Health Rehabilitation Unit which offers the latest in therapeutic design and the very best in rehabilitative treatment and care for people living with a mental illness,” he said.

“Opening this facility was a watershed moment for our health service because it really reminded us just how diverse our services were, and that healthcare is so much more complex than broken bones and chronic disease.

“We also expanded our renal unit to provide greater access to dialysis for people living with kidney disease which is also part of our strong mandate to close the gap in health outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.”

As health service chief executive Mr Keyes said he felt immense pride leading a hospital with such a rich history and promising future.

“There are thousands of staff who play a role in the facility and the healthcare we offer today,” he said.

“It is not a question of if the hospital will continue to innovate and increase services but more a question of what will that look like and what the possibilities are.

“In my time here, I have been astounded at what we, as a regional hospital, have been able to achieve and offer.

“I’m very proud of the fact that our focus has been, and continues to be, on providing excellent public healthcare to people living in our region and doing that while keeping them close to home.”

Mr Keyes said while bricks and mortar and medical equipment were critically important, healthcare came down to people.

“We’re only as good as the sum of our parts and I thank every single one of our staff who all play their role in patient care and I thank the city of Townsville and the community of northern Australia for the trust they put in us every day to care for them and those they love.

“I’m excited at the possibilities of the next two decades.”

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