After almost a decade as a Board Director, including a long stint as Board Chair, Woodend local, Emeritus Professor Peter Matthews, is stepping down from the recently merged entity, Central Highlands Rural Health (CHRH) after nine years service. He recently reflected on leadership, health and community in times of change.

When Professor  Matthews was interviewed for a Kyneton District Health (KDH) Board position back in 2013, he was asked what a health service should be. He hadn’t rehearsed an answer for that one, so he pondered a while before responding, “The short answer: ‘A safe harbour.’”

At the time, KDH faced significant community engagement challenges. Peter recalls that the health service seemed to have lost its way. “The level of care was not the problem. It was understanding who we are and what we do. A health service can’t offer everything – it can’t be everything to all people – but if someone turns up unwell, we either need to know how to look after them, or know where they need to go,” he said. “It’s important to get the balance right of the services local people should be able to draw on. The hospital should reflect the local community.”

Peter has lived and worked in rural communities most of his life. He has also forged a leadership career in the arts and academia, developing considerable governance and stakeholder engagement experience that guided his Board work.

But for Peter, the local community context has remained front and centre. “It gave KDH staff such a sense of achievement to have made it through a rough patch and out the other side. There were a couple of community-based events – an Open Day and Tree Planting Day – which had an impact, and the local Treehouse program has had an impact too.”

“The amalgamation with Hepburn Health to become CHRH was a big challenge and achievement. We made sure to incorporate the local history of each health service and named each campus after their area – Clunes Health, Creswick Health, Daylesford Health, Kyneton Health and Trentham Health. This maintained the identity of the communities. We acknowledge our history, but we focus on the future.”

The pandemic hit three months after the amalgamation and yet the merger was a smooth experience for staff and local people. Professor Matthews said,
“The first 100 days after an amalgamation are critical and the way staff adjusted and then responded to COVID  was inspirational. The place didn’t fall apart! The challenge resulted in us working more closely together with other health services. It was a common problem that needed a common solution.”

Looking for the common ground is a part of Peter’s leadership style. A Board is made up of many different personalities with distinct views. Collectively these people set the strategic direction for a health service and hold the ultimate responsibility for its performance. He commented, “I have learned to keep an open mind and to distil ideas, not dilute them. All voices should be heard. I tried to pull out the core idea from what everyone was saying, to capture the story – what are we doing? why are we doing it? and who will do what?”

“The quality and commitment of the Board members, our CEO and staff are unwavering. The people who work here are great! An organisation will always face challenges, but I feel as though we’ve accomplished good things. We are in a good place and in good hands with the next Chair, Phillip Thomson.”

“A local hospital is a necessary and a good thing. I believe in the health service, and my hope is that I’ve made a positive contribution.”

You can read a full conversation with Emeritus Professor Peter Matthews at: