Leading through the COVID-19 crisis

Professor Zsuzsoka Kecskes, Acting Director, ANU Medical School, COVID19, leadership

Rapid decision making, responding to constant change, regular communication with employees and students (in the case of a university) - are a few of the key skills needed to lead during a crisis.

“To be honest, it was a bit daunting at the start”, says Professor Zsuzsoka Kecskes who stepped into the role of Acting Director at the Australian National University (ANU) Medical School when Director, Professor Imogen Mitchell was seconded by Canberra Health Services to the position of Clinical Director, ACT COVID19 Response, at end of March 2020.

Although Professor Kecskes’s leadership skills have been recognised previously when she was awarded the ACT Australian of the Year 2014 for her leadership in partnering with parents, taking on a leadership position at short notice in the middle of a pandemic is a completely different playing field.

Within days of taking on the Directorship, the University shut down, staff were working from home, and all teaching had to fully transition to online.

On top of dealing with the swift operational changes, Professor Kecskes had to calibrate for the lead role. “In my Deputy Director role, I worked ‘within’ the Medical School and with clinical staff.  Taking up the Director role meant working with external partners such as ACT and NSW Health, Medical Deans of Australia and New Zealand, and Health Services.  I was turning up to meetings where I didn’t know the people or the background of a committee. That was tough.”

Over the months, Professor Kecskes has proven herself to be a quick learner and a natural leader. Under her direction, the Medical School has been guided through a shut down and reopen, all learning transitioned online, clinical placements restarted, and processes were put in place to ensure the wellbeing and an optimal learning experience for all students.

“I am delighted by the way we managed the on-line teaching transition. Its success is a reflection of years of investment in equipment, software and our people within the Medical School. We have also worked out that not all teaching has to happen face-to-face. Course work, such as anatomy, is possible online when technology is utilised.”

In between leading the Medical School and her clinical work as a Neonatologist, Professor Kecskes chairs the Canberra Health Services Policy Committee, is a member of two high level quality and safety committees and chairs the Clinical Ethics Committee. This multi-disciplinary group, which includes consumers, has been in operation for many years.  It generally deals with clinical ethical issues such as differences in opinion on clinical decisions, communication and end-of-life decisions, and issues around consent for new techniques or new medications.

“When the pandemic started, some members of our group were asked to draft an ethical framework and clinical guidelines for the management of hospital beds during COVID19.  We engaged with ethicists from the ANU Medical School, clinicians from Canberra Hospital, consumers from the Health Care Association ACT, and an expert in bioethics from the Army for their input.”

As life continues in COVID normal mode, Professor Kecskes has the following thoughts to share, “It’s been a challenging year. We had prepared well by setting up the Operation Graduate Plan and working groups.  I’ve also been fortunate to have great colleagues for support and ideas.  The students have shown wonderful leadership qualities and worked with us throughout. Our staff have gone above and beyond their jobs – while also caring for each other and the students.  That we were able to continue our Bachelor of Health Science and Doctor of Medicine and Surgery programs and will graduate competent and safe students is a true team effort.”

“For our graduating class of 2020 - living and dealing with uncertainty is a lesson that can’t be taught in the classroom. This year has prepared them well for the future.”