Date: August 11 2012
When preparing to meet a recently retired doctor who plays unicycle hockey and may soon work part-time as a labourer, one might be expecting a slightly zany Patch Adams type of character.
But Dr Rod Lambert appears perfectly sane and down to earth and has unique insights into the development of Canberra's public hospital system over the past 20 years. Lambert retired last month from the Canberra Hospital, where he spent 12 years working as a clinician and medical administrator, mostly focused on the training of junior doctors.
He is married to high-profile organ and tissue donation campaigner and former health administrator Anne Cahill Lambert. The couple moved to Canberra in 1992 from Lambert's home state of Victoria so that Anne could be closer to family after the birth of the couple's son Tom.
Lambert initially took a job as director of medical services at Calvary Hospital, which had undergone a major expansion in the wake of the closure of the old Royal Canberra Hospital.
Lambert took a dim view of the Australian Capital Territory as the still wet-behind-the ears local government attempted to run the public health system.
''During that time - 1992 - the government in Canberra was a joke,'' Lambert says. ''That was in the years after the election when they had the Sun-Ripened Warm Tomato Party and the Party, Party, Party and the No Self-Government Party running for the Legislative Assembly.
''The No Self-Government Party actually held a seat. ''The people of Canberra, through their voting habits and the political structures as far as I could see as an outsider … the whole state was a joke. And that parliament was trying to run a health service and it was pretty hit-and-miss there along the way I think.''
Lambert says many individuals received good health services but the system was disjointed. He believes the administration of the health system has improved as self-government has matured.
Lambert says he is impressed by the way Chief Minister Katy Gallagher - whom he knows socially as well as professionally - manages the health portfolio. ''She may or may not have reached her use-by date but she understands … I've seen situations and how she's dealt with them. Apart from any political skills that Katy might have, she's a very capable hospital manager without necessarily doing it all hands-on.''
Health administration is something Lambert knows well. The Melbourne High School old boy graduated from the University of Melbourne in 1970 and spent his intern year in Queensland.
He briefly worked as a GP in Brisbane where he also completed a diploma of Information Processing in 1972. He was assistant director of medical services at the Alfred Hospital in Melbourne and Director of Medical Services at Goulburn Valley Base Hospital in Shepparton.
He spent three years conducting research on the computerisation of medical records at Walter and Eliza Hall Institute in Melbourne and has held senior positions in the Royal Australian College of Medical Administrators.
When Lambert arrived at Calvary, the northside hospital had undergone a significant expansion as services and staff were shifted over from the old Canberra Hospital. ''Half of the staff there had gone to Woden Hospital, which was renamed ultimately the Canberra Hospital, and a lot of other staff, nursing staff and others, had gone across to Calvary Hospital.
''Calvary Hospital had jumped up to 200 or 250 beds or something from 20 or 40. The emergency department went to 24 hours, the staff increased throughout the hospital and multiple wards opened. General medicine, surgery, the psychiatric services started.''
In 2000, having switched roles at Calvary to a medical officer, Lambert was asked to go to the Canberra Hospital for three months to help the hospital meet the accreditation standards required to accept medical interns from NSW.
He ended up staying at the hospital as ''Minister Without Portfolio'' in the hospital, with a special focus on junior doctors. The lack of a local medical school meant the hospital had to undertake international searches for suitable interns.
''In 1992 in Canberra we had no local medical graduates. So all of our recruitment for junior doctors - from interns straight out of medical school - we were trying to get them from all around the world. We'd get a proportion who came out of the system in Sydney - probably half of the interns came from Sydney - but the other half we had to recruit from overseas [or] interstate.''
The establishment of the ANU Medical School is now delivering the hospital more than enough interns.
''People who live in Canberra can go to high school in Canberra, go to medical school in Canberra and when they graduate they've never been anywhere else,'' Lambert says.
''They still want to travel and do things but the numbers that leave are much less. A lot more will want to stay because their partners or children are at school or working locally. People come from interstate or overseas to get into the ANU medical school - more than half of them want to stay here to do their internship here.''
Finding interns for the hospital is no longer a problem, but fitting in all of the graduates from the ANU who need intern places is. ''The challenge at the hospital when I left a few weeks ago was how do we employ nearly 100 doctors. Twenty years ago we would have had nearly 30 positions for junior doctors but we've now more than tripled that.''
The next challenge for the health system will be how to continue the training of all of the doctors who have completed their intern years, but that is a problem for Lambert's successors.
Outside work, Lambert has an interesting range of hobbies. Before entering medical school, he considered joining the air force or becoming a commercial pilot and he enjoys flying gliders as well as planes with light engines.
And of course there are Lambert's unicycles, the first of which he noticed in the window of a Borsari Cycles in the Melbourne suburb of Carlton about 25 years ago.
''I'd just got my tax return so I had some money and I saw a unicycle and thought that'd be interesting … I'll buy it and learn to ride it.''
By coincidence, after Lambert moved to Canberra one of his neighbours formed a local unicycling club.
Lambert took up unicycle hockey and has even ridden across Mongolia. ''Compared to flying it's much cheaper. You might spend $600 on a unicycle stand - it'll last you 20 years - but $600 on flying will get you a couple of hours and you've got nothing to show for it except a hot aeroplane.''
Lambert is determined to keep busy in retirement. His son Tom has started his own paving business and Lambert would like to give him a hand on larger jobs that require a second pair of hands.
Lambert has completed the induction training needed to access building sites and is in the process of applying for a rigid vehicle licence.
It'll be another feather in the cap of one of life's natural all-rounders.
Peter Jean is Health Reporter.
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