Alumnus Spotlight: David C. Roberts: Transforming Health Systems Around the World

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David C. Roberts has gone global. Geographically speaking, he has moved about as far afield from his native England as is physically possible. Roberts has made a neat transition from a challenging role affecting reform within what was seen as a troubled sector of the United Kingdom’s National Health Service a few years ago to his current command heading up the Department of Health and Human Services in Tasmania, Australia.

Professionally, Roberts hasn’t so much changed what he does (and does well) as seized an opportunity to bring his talents and experiences to bear on a new health system ripe for reform.

In his previous post as CEO of University Hospitals Coventry and Warwickshire NHS Trust, Roberts was tasked with turning around what was considered in 2001 to be one of the worst-performing trusts in the United Kingdom. In his five years there, he successfully influenced key decision makers and more than 8,000 employees to move toward delivery of a new vision for their organization. “My passion is ‘integration’ building and developing the integration of systems, and now how social care systems integrate, as well,” he explains.

Roberts has followed the international scene closely, observed the world’s health care systems, and participated in their development wherever possible. He has built networks among international health executives and business leaders operating within the global health arena. So it was natural that he sought out and participated in the Global Health Leadership Forum

(GHLF) a certificate program offered by the UC Berkeley School of Public Health in partnership with the Barcelona Graduate School of Economics and the Universitat Pompeu Fabra Economics and Health Research Center. The annual, two-part program offers senior health care leaders from around the world the opportunity to explore health policy and health system change.

“David was a lively member of the Global Health Leadership Forum’s first sessions in 2004 and 2005. He helped launch the program,” remembers GHLF program director Meg Kellogg.

Roberts, in turn, credits his participation in GHLF with inspiring personal growth. “The standing and quality of the speakers was exceptional,” he says. “There were many practical examples and a wealth of strategic debate and focus. I had not expected to be subjected to quite as much material and learning potential as I was, but the content was very relevant to the agendas in which I was engaged.”

This familiarity with best practices from around the world—new approaches to health challenges, modernization, and transformation of health and human service delivery—greatly informs his own efforts to achieve sustainable system reform. “I believe I am the health leader I am today because of this interest and exposure,” he says.

But why exchange hemispheres—north for south, west for east? “Moving from running hospitals to running a system—one that has a broad range of those public services that either determine or influence health

and well-being outcomes—was what drew me to Tasmania,” offers Roberts.

In his current position as secretary of Tasmania’s Health and Human Services, he is responsible for acute, primary, and community services provided to more than 1.5 million patients and clients, including ambulance, mental health, dental health, public health, public housing, child protection, family services, disability services, and youth justice.

“The world does appear to be heading toward a number of significant health system challenges, and our systems are under more pressure than they have ever been,” says Roberts. “Chronic disease is embedding itself in our communities as an increasingly normalized health status. That, matched to the [aging]demographic of our populations, is forcing some pretty tricky system reform issues.”

As chair of the Australian Health Workforce Principal Commitee, Roberts leads a nationwide committee of senior officials from each state and territory and the Commonwealth. “Our objective is to ensure that our health system most effectively uses a skilled workforce to best support service delivery to all Australians,” says Roberts.

Kellogg reports that Roberts plans to return to GHLF in 2010. “The agenda is customized and revised every year based upon the feedback of participants,” explains Kellogg. Six years after his first watershed experience with the program, the agenda will be very different. So, too, are the set of challenges he will bring to GHLF’s uniquely global table. end of line

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