Digital Health Cooperative Research Centre Board member Kate Munnings has stepped into a challenging new role mid-pandemic, as the Group CEO of Virtus Health, the largest IVF provider in Australia, Ireland and Demark, with a growing position in Singapore.

The company was impacted by the pandemic, particularly by the national suspension of elective surgery from late March, but Virtus resumed fertility treatments on April 27 as bans were gradually lifted last month.

Under COVID-19, a huge rise in telehealth is keeping Virtus patients connected – and in the longer term, these practices could even help to lower the cost of IVF procedures, she says.

The sector is already a big adopter of technology; one oft-cited example is a partnership with which uses an AI algorithm to scan thousands of photographs to identify for implantation the embryo most likely to succeed.

There’s a strange deja-vu at work here; Ms Munnings began her career in the HIV epidemic in the 1980s. After training as a nurse, she worked on the HIV ward at St Vincents Hospital in Sydney, and in the Albion St Aids Clinic – and the irony of jumping into her fast-paced new role during the current pandemic is not lost on her.

Ms Munnings most recent role was as chief operating officer at Australia’s largest private hospital operator, Ramsay Health Care, where she spent four years, and ushered in a major digital transformation project across the group’s extensive network.

Pivot Point

Ms Munnings has taken a number of opportunities to reinvent herself throughout her career. While working in AIDS clinics, she was constantly challenged by thorny ethical and legal issues around patient privacy versus social responsibility, which motivated her to complete a Bachelor of Health Science and a Bachelor of Laws.

“Ironically, I never went into healthcare law; I was a contract specialist in private practice looking at construction law and then went to Transfield where I was effectively engaged as a corporate lawyer.”

She said her CEO at Transfield wasn’t concerned about her lack of corporate law experience. “He said: you’re the right cultural fit, and you’ve reinvented yourself once before, so you can do it again!”

She ended up in the boardroom advising on corporate governance – a steep learning curve – then moved into risk, and eventually became the chief executive of the Group’s logistics, construction and consulting businesses.

While at Transfield she also served as a Board Member for South East Sydney Local Health District for four years to 2016, when she joined Ramsay.

“I think my diversity of experience has helped me cope quite well with the rapid disruption introduced by the pandemic,” she acknowledges – adding that in times of great change, being a flexible thinker who can make decisions fast, is critical.

“Four years ago, I had never run a hospital, but as Ramsay Health Chief Operating Officer I found myself in charge of 72 of them – it’s quite amazing how transferrable skills can be, when you get to a certain level of leadership,” she says.

Digital Health a real opportunity

Ms Munnings says she saw a real opportunity when invited to join the Digital Health CRC Board in November 2019. “I think the CRC’s mission is incredibly important because I believe personally, the only way we’re going to solve the affordability issues in healthcare, is through technology.”

She says that she’s been constantly frustrated by the approach to technology from Australia’s health care sector more broadly.

“At a time when technology is doubling in capacity every two years, and we know that new disruptors like the Internet of Things and AI and quantum computing will change every industry – if you go into many of our healthcare environments, it is like going back a century, as far as embracing change.”

Digital health strategies mean better use of data to support decisions, and the ability for information to be shared across jurisdictions and across healthcare networks. “At the moment, because we can’t easily share information, that means that there’s waste and there’s errors,” she says.

Leading digital transformation

Ms Munnings spent much of her time in her previous role, leading the Ramsay group through a major digital transformation. “Technology change is always about people, process and systems, it’s not about the systems and the tech.”

Ramsay’s transformation began transforming the decentralised operating model, and harmonising business processes across the group to share and adopt best practice.

“Digital healthcare technology and digital capability is so important to our future strategy at Virtus Health. It’s incumbent on us as business leaders to educate ourselves sufficiently so that we can work with digital natives,” she says.

Ms Munnings says she’s passionate about the role of the Digital Health CRC.

“I’m on the DHCRC board as an industry participant. I’m working in real time with real doctors and my role on the board is to give the perspective of, how do we create projects that can actually improve healthcare delivery.”

– by Fran Molloy

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