Ray Fairweather was meant to be a farmer, just like his parents.
But as the St Andrew’s Toowoomba Hospital CEO prepares to retire after almost five decades in the healthcare industry, it seems he chose the right career after all.
Mr Fairweather is stepping back after 20 years at the Queensland private hospital and said he had “mixed feelings” about leaving.
“Of course, it’s exciting to go onto the next chapter of my life, but I am a bit sad.
“I’ve had 48 and a half years in the health industry – that’s a long time in my chosen career, but of course, you can’t go on forever,” he said.
Having finished high school in Inverell, New South Wales, in 1971 he had “always” planned to work on the family farm.
“But I saw a job advertised for a trainee health administrator at Inverell Hospital, so I applied and I started there in January 1972,” he said.
“I had a good mentor there, George Chalmers, who was a great help to me. You don’t get a career like this without people helping you along the way and I’ve been very lucky in that respect.”
After climbing through the ranks and completing some tertiary study at what was then Mitchell College in Bathurst, now Charles Sturt University, Mr Fairweather moved to the New England Health regional office in Tamworth.
In the 1990s, he went further west in NSW, taking up a CEO position in Coonabarabran.
“That was a great experience, moving to a different region, dealing with a rural and regional population and the different isolation issues out there,” Mr Fairweather said.
Moving throughout the public health system in western New South Wales during numerous state government restructures, he was eventually appointed as the CEO of Macquarie Area Health, based in Dubbo.
“That involved taking care of 16 public hospitals, 23 community health centres and dental clinics as well,” he said.
“It was exciting, it was an eye-opener. It’s a massive area to cover and I had about 1,500 staff working under me.”
In 2000, the private sector came knocking.
“The chair of the board of St Andrew's here in Toowoomba gave me a call and asked if I would be interested in being the CEO of the private hospital,” Mr Fairweather said.
“So I had a look at the hospital and decided to make the move.”
He said there were some challenges involved in switching sectors.
“In the public health service, you’re dealing with the bureaucracy, whereas in the private sector you are there to drive a business and the doctors are the people who bring that business to you.
“Dealing with the health funds was initially a bit of a challenge for me and just the emphasis in private practice, being mindful that doctors are considered your customer," he said.
“And also dealing with industrial unions, negotiating enterprise bargaining agreements – in the public system that is all done for you.
“But as the time progressed, I felt I was able to bring the technology here up to speed and keep abreast of all the changes in the industry.
“You really have to take care of your surgeons and ensure the tools they have are the absolute latest. That’s the challenge – to not fall behind in the latest technology.”
Mr Fairweather also worked with the Australian Private Hospitals Association (APHA) for several years on its Council.
“St Andrew's has always been a member of the APHA and we’ve found that association beneficial,” he said.
“We’re a standalone, not-for-profit hospital, and to understand what is happening in the industry you need an association membership like that, it’s helped our facility here no end.
“We’ve also been a member of the Private Hospitals Association of Queensland. We need those partnerships and memberships to network, keep on top of the latest technology and also keep up with our competitors.”
APHA CEO Michael Roff acknowledged Mr Fairweather’s contribution to the broader private hospital industry with his service on the APHA Council.
“Ray represented Small Hospitals on the Council and the Workforce Taskforce for five years from 2011 to 2016,” he said.
“During this time, he was an active member of the Council and engaged in APHA activities.
“APHA is very grateful for the time and effort Ray put into his role with us and for his advice during this time and we’d like to wish him all the best in his retirement.”
Mr Fairweather said helping to bring more services to regional people was what he had loved the most during his long career.
“A highlight for me at St Andrew’s has been the awarding of two Commonwealth tenders, totalling around $15 million,” he said.
“The first was to establish a radiotherapy unit on the Darling Downs, and the second was to increase the capacity for those radiotherapy services.
“And we have now moved medical oncology into the same building. St Andrew’s now has one of the largest regional cancer care centres in Australia.
“For regional people, that’s critical. Prior to that, people had to travel to Brisbane for radiotherapy – either travel back and forth every day for six weeks, or set themselves up in Brisbane for six weeks, for what is a 20-minute procedure.
“So to be able to offer this here, that’s massive for regional services.
“The other highlight was to establish cardiology services here in Toowoomba, first diagnostic only and then interventional cardiology, and the insertion of devices, such as pacemakers.
“Previously, people had to go to Brisbane just for an angiogram.”
With travel off the cards for everyone right now, Mr Fairweather said he planned a quiet start to his retirement.
“The first thing I’d like to do is spend time with my family and also get fit. Looking after a private hospital during a pandemic, I’ve neglected my own health a bit!
“My Mum is 91 and still living in Inverell, so hopefully once the restrictions are lifted I’ll be able to see her and hopefully too once all this COVID is over, some international travel.
“And of course catch up with things around the house – my wife has a big 'to do' list for me,” he said.