Articles and Case Studies

A nation’s capacity: COVID-19

04 Dec 2020

by Dr Nick Coatsworth

Australian states and COVID-19

Writing this article is one of the last things I’ll be doing as a full-time Deputy Chief Medical Officer of Australia. For me, like so many of us, the past six months have felt like years in terms of the pace of change and the need to adapt to COVID-19, both personally and professionally.

Each of us has experienced the pandemic in a different way. However, collectively as a profession, it has provided immense challenges in delivering timely and safe care while coming to terms with an unfamiliar feeling for most doctors – that our workplace is a potential hazard to ourselves, our colleagues and our families.


I started working for the Federal Department of Health on 23 March 2020. Opportunity often comes up at odd times. Like many doctors working in the public system I was feeling tired and burnt out, wondering which direction my career would head in – and in desperate need of a break after a torrid summer of east coast bushfires. The call from Professor Paul Kelly was out of the blue. Paul and I had been colleagues in ACT Health and knew each other from my previous role as Executive Director of the National Critical Care and Trauma Response Centre in Darwin. In a short instant, I was on the phone to my wife, excited and daunted by the prospect of working nationally to guide the pandemic response.


My first day in the National Incident Room (NIR) at the Department of Health in Canberra felt similar to other emergency responses I had been involved in, just on a far grander scale. The NIR is named for the late and great Professor Aileen Plant, the mother of field epidemiology in Australia. It was a hive of activity, the engine room of a ‘whole of government response’. What was clear from the first instant was the sheer amount of human capital being brought to bear on this problem. Far from being a creaky, lumbering bureaucracy, what I saw gave me immense confidence in the nation’s capacity to manage COVID-19.


But the mood was very different out in the profession and in the general public. Early restrictions were being introduced, and stories were emerging of health systems being overwhelmed and large numbers of healthcare worker infections. The immediate thought that entered my mind was how to convey to my colleagues the confidence I felt at seeing the inner workings of the national response to the community.


What followed was six months of providing a link between hospital-based clinicians and the Department of Health, and more time than I thought possible in front of TV cameras. A lot of my work ended up being trying to facilitate good ideas which required government support. Working alongside the National COVID-19 Clinical Evidence Taskforce and helping the Australian and New Zealand Intensive Care Society and Ambulance Victoria roll out a national ICU bed capacity monitoring system were but two of many highlights during this time.


As I head back to the ‘frontline’ so to speak, the issue of healthcare worker infections weighs heavily, with more than 3,400 health and aged care workers in Victoria contracting COVID-19. One of the things we must do better is to provide confidence that lessons are learned that will protect us in the workplace. The debate over airborne transmission of COVID-19 has been particularly polarising.

The presence of clinical leaders, within hospital administration and health bureaucracy, is critical in navigating these issues and providing confidence that the guidelines and policies we work to are indeed best practice. COVID-19 is here to stay, and we all need to work together to adapt to it.


Communication with Colleagues, Communication with Patients, Doctors Health and Wellbeing, Anaesthesia, Dermatology, Emergency Medicine, General Practice, Intensive Care Medicine, Obstetrics and Gynaecology, Ophthalmology, Pathology, Practice Manager Or Owner, Psychiatry, Radiology, Sports Medicine, Surgery, Physician, Geriatric Medicine, Cardiology, Plastic And Reconstructive Surgery, Radiation Oncology, Paediatrics, Independent Medical Assessor - IME


My Career Journey with Dr Nick Coatsworth

Dr Nick Coatsworth is an expert in health policy, public administration and a practising infectious diseases physician. He held a national role in the Australian response to COVID-19 as Deputy Chief Medical Officer of Australia, becoming one of the most recognised medical spokespeople during the pandemic. Nick engaged the Australian community through a variety of media platforms most notably as the spearhead of the national COVID-19 vaccination campaign. Dr Micheal Gannon, Obstetrician & Gynaecologist, sits down with Dr Nick Coatsworth to discuss Nick's medical career journey, and what insights and advice he has for junior doctors. MDA National would like to acknowledge the contributions of MDA National staff, Members, friends and colleagues in the production of the podcast and note that this work is copyright. Apart from any use permitted under applicable copyright law, you may not reproduce the content of this podcast without the permission of MDA National. This podcast contains generic information only, is intended to stimulate thought and discussion, and doesn’t account for requirements of any particular individual. The content may contain opinions which are not necessarily those of MDA National. We recommend that you always contact your indemnity provider when you require specific advice in relation to your insurance policy or medico-legal matters. MDA National Members need to contact us for specific medico-legal advice on freecall 1800 011 255 or email We may also refer you to other professional services.


09 Jun 2022

Career complications and contending with uncertainty

Among the many challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic for junior doctors is how to respond to medical training impacts and career uncertainty. In this podcast, Dr Caroline Elton (a psychologist who specialises in helping doctors)and Dr Benjamin Veness (a Psychiatry registrar) share advice for coping with medical training and career delays, disruptions and unknowns.


10 Aug 2020