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The People’s Hospital Tales from the surgeon's table

Phong Tran

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Phong Tran

Orthopaedic surgeon, head of orthopaedic unit 2010–present

Phong Tran was born in Vietnam in 1976. He came to Australia as a refugee, aged two, with his family. He grew up in Springvale and was educated at Mentone Grammar and Monash University. Mr Tran trained as a registrar at Footscray Hospital. He completed his orthopaedic training in Melbourne and later undertook an overseas fellowship in orthopaedics in Germany.

In 2014 he was the first Victorian surgeon in 18 years to be awarded the prestigious American British Canadian Travelling Fellowship. The fellowship is awarded for exceptional performance in leadership, patient care and research.

A can do culture

“It’s amazing how much we’ve achieved at Footscray Hospital despite the really old buildings that haven’t been renewed for many years. There’s a lot of infrastructure that needs to be built. We have an amazing culture but we need amazing facilities to match capacity.

It’s a very much a can do culture. When I first started at this hospital I noticed that good ideas always had support whilst at other hospitals it was hard to get a good idea through because of power plays or because of the hierarchy or because you never had meetings with different people.

I remember that when I first came back as a consultant from my fellowship overseas I had a good idea and Claire Culley, the Divisional Director of surgery, organised for me to have a meeting with the hospital’s CEO. As a junior consultant, you wouldn’t expect a CEO to have time to meet you and then set up a working committee around your idea.

I suggested to the CEO that we needed a good patient information website and a good auditing system because we needed to educate patients better and monitor their care better.”

Finding better ways to measure patient care

“Even when I was a registrar at the hospital Chris Haw, as head of the orthopaedic unit, let me build a software audit program to monitor patient care. It’s still being used now except it’s even better because we’ve built on it.

Chris let me do that because it was in the best interests of the patient. That audit program has been the reason why our research has gone so far because we can monitor the patients much better than before.

That’s what the future is about – how we can monitor patients more closely to see which ones do better and which ones do worse and the reasons why. It’s how we can improve the care of patients.

Now we’ve got a huge challenge about how to improve care with a growing population. I think we can do it because of the culture of the hospital. We’ve never been endowed with great wealth but despite that we’ve proven that we have gold standard care.

The audit program is now being used in other units and clinics across the hospital to monitor patient care and enhance research capacity.”

Underdog status

“People still have the attitude that Footscray is a long way from the city.

It’s great that people think of us as the Wild West because I love the idea of the underdog. People in the profession often ask about what’s happening out west.

We’ve got this great reputation now of a group of people who just go and get things done. We don’t rest on our past reputation or the name of the hospital. We know there’s a lot of work to be done and we get on with it.”

Older surgeons

“The surgeons who first came out here in the 50s were coming out to a new frontier, a small hospital in the west and many of them have stayed.

A lot of them were trained overseas in the British system and they established the Western as a credible place to work and they stayed on. That’s an amazing achievement.

One of the things that really separates this hospital from other hospitals is the number of senior staff that we have at Footscray. The orthopaedic unit has five senior staff over 65. That’s a credit to our unit. No other orthopaedic unit in Victoria and maybe even Australia has that calibre of senior people wanting to stay and contribute.

What you tend to have in most units is a lot of young people and when you turn 40 or 50 you tend to leave the public system. Our guys have stayed and our unit continues to grow. We’re one of the biggest units in the state and all our theatres are at capacity.

This is where having more facilities becomes important. It’s not about the cosmetic look of Footscray; it’s about building more capacity to have more surgeons to deal with one of the fastest growing populations in Australia.”

Loyalty to the public hospital system

“In our unit we could all work only in the private system but we don’t because we want to treat public patients and also train junior doctors who will do the same in the future. I’m hoping a lot of our juniors, once they’ve completed their training, will come back to the Western.

It’s about team building. We’re maintaining and attracting surgeons who want to work in public health for very honourable reasons. They want to teach, they want to give back to the public system and they know that the public system isn’t the easy system. It has many more complicated patients, it’s a big machine, it’s hard to move.

Obviously when everyone comes back from fellowship, they want a job and they’re happy to work anywhere. But do they stay? Do they contribute to the public system when they’ve picked up their private practice, enhanced their skills – when they don’t need us anymore? They’re the most valuable people – the ones who don’t need us but want to stay for reasons other than money.

That’s what’s special about our unit. We have those people in our unit and none of us do the job for the money. A lot of our junior surgeons have given up posts in the inner city and other big hospitals to be at the Western specifically because the team culture at the west attracts them.”

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