Frontline flames to health's heat

TESTING TRANSITION: Former firefighter Dan Coward is excited about the challenges ahead in his new role with the Canterbury District Health Board.
TESTING TRANSITION: Former firefighter Dan Coward is excited about the challenges ahead in his new role with the Canterbury District Health Board.

Ten years ago, firefighter Dan Coward did not expect he would end up working on a $600 million redevelopment of Christchurch's two biggest hospitals.

Before Canterbury's earthquakes, the 38-year-old was the Christchurch metro area manager for the Fire Service. Now he is five weeks into a completely different role as general manager for older persons, orthopaedics and rehabilitation at the Canterbury District Health Board (CDHB).

"It's very much a leadership role around . . . how we ensure the patient flow for acute patients; how do we ensure we're providing the right care at the right time in the right place," he tells The Press from a spacious executive office at Princess Margaret Hospital.

Coward grew up and went to university in Wellington - studying everything from horticulture to occupational health and safety - before joining the Fire Service in Gisborne at 21.

He moved around fire stations in the North Island, working both on the front line and behind the scenes in areas like health and safety.

In 2007 he moved to Christchurch in 2007 with his wife of 14 years and their two children, a daughter now aged 10 and a son, 6.

On the day of the February 2011 earthquake, Coward was in Wellington for a conference on emergency planning but rushed back to Christchurch by helicopter and quickly took charge of the Fire Service's response to the disaster.

Last year, he was seconded to the Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority (Cera) as part of a joint project with the State Services Commission to improve the ways public organisations delivered services.

"I got to meet a lot of people involved in health and was fascinated by . . . the opportunities for innovation. I'm just impressed with the passion and enthusiasm I've met in people in the health system. There's a real drive for [finding out] how they can improve the systems to improve patient care."

Only five weeks into his new role, Coward had to go to "a lot of meetings" and learn "the language of the business".

The district health board job includes looking after the health of older people, where reducing hospital visits is a key priority, and overseeing orthopaedic and rehabilitation services at Burwood Hospital.

The fire service and the DHB may seem like different worlds, but Coward said they had similar leadership structures and a shared desire to keep improving services.

"There's been the odd joke that the staff in the fire service wear uniforms and the staff in the DHB wear uniforms, but the language is certainly different. I think I might work on [a glossary], it'll be a bestseller in the health sector."

The biggest challenge ahead centres around the redevelopment of Burwood Hospital - part of the largest and most complex building project in the history of New Zealand's public health service.

"People are really excited about the new facilities. They're really excited about the opportunity to design work space that's different . . . but it's very demanding in terms of the time frames. Maintaining the motivation and the pace of the facilities development is really essential."

The Press