‘The buck stops here’: Meet Michelle O’Brien

8 minute read

A fearless campaigner with a long tech career, O’Brien has plenty of suggestions for anyone who actually wants to improve Australia’s health.

Michelle O’Brien is a self-confessed whistleblower who calls out health system failings. As a LinkedIn influencer Michelle is constantly highlighting technology solutions to Australia’s health inequity.

What drives this persistent advocacy?

Last year, Michelle shared in an intimate LinkedIn post about spending three years in an orphanage while her grandmother fought to change guardianship legislation. Her grandmother won and Michelle has followed in her footsteps fighting for equity ever since.

With a hefty technology career in health services Michelle is now head of content and strategy for Wild Health Summits and Health Services Daily, TMR’s new digital sister publication.

Why are you so frustrated at the state of digital health in Australia?

Because it increases the inequity. To me, it seems like a no-brainer. I’ve grown up working with technology all my life so, to me, it seems obvious – if we can create interoperability, if we can improve health literacy, it will mean that people aren’t going to end up with chronic diseases. They’re not going to end up in institutional aged care.

Why are we letting people get sick? We can alert people earlier in their life that they might be at risk of cardiovascular vascular disease or diabetes – why aren’t we looking for ways to do that?

The other thing is the way we’ve set up our health system. It’s almost like everyone can say “that’s somebody else’s problem – the Commonwealth’s problem or the states’ problem, it’s not our job”. Instead everyone should be saying: “Ultimately, the buck stops here.” We need accountability.

Are there any low-hanging fruit?

Cloud solutions and the ability to be able to rapidly deploy and scale up programs that are working. Everyone says it, and I agree, the technology is not the problem. The technology is here and it’s working brilliantly overseas.

[We need] our government to be more in tune with what is working well in the sector. Let’s somehow get some coordination and long-term funding for these programs that are already working. That’s what I like about working with Health Services Daily – we’re putting spotlights on different programs that are working really well and getting the word out.

If you were Mark Butler for a day what would you do?

I would look for the most talented people, from the private and public sector and not-for-profit sectors and bring them together as a health advisory board. Maybe 30 or 50 people but they’d come from everywhere, not just bureaucracy, and be the people that we see as the leading lights.

Then, as Mark Butler, I’d just sit back and listen to what they have to say.

I think there’s too much bureaucracy. Let’s simplify it and bring those people in and give them voice to oversee our health system and make it move quicker. The hardest thing is how long things take to actually happen in Australia. These people would provide solutions.

Why don’t you go work for a Big Four consulting group and earn squillions?

Because it would curtail the ability to say what needs to be said. I’ve had some incredibly well-paying jobs, so I’ve had those years, but I’ve now turned whistleblower on the whole industry and am determined to point out the problems and be that voice for the people who can’t say what they want to say because of who employs them now, or who might in the future.

I talk to so many amazing people and a lot of what is said is “off the record”. If there’s one thing that I keep hearing from different people it’s that we [at Wild Heath Summits and Health Services Daily] are saying the things that they want to say but can’t.

I get the most incredible feedback from people, some of Australia’s top clinicians, saying “Thank you so much for speaking out”, as well as feedback from people working in the system, policymakers who are just so frustrated and want to see the change.

If you’re getting to the end of your career, and thinking about retirement, what better thing to do it than sharing what you believe in, every day, and not have someone say “You need to take that post down” or “nobody approved that post”?

Want to give the next Wild Health Summit a plug?

Wild Health events are just amazing. They’re interesting, fun and we don’t skirt around issues. The vibe in the room is great because everybody’s excited and inspired. We do genuinely feel that bit by bit we’re all nudging the system towards reform.

Wild Health Summits are well known but Health Services Daily, we’re still the new kid on the block. It’s just been incredible how engaged everyone has become with our stories but we don’t just want to be a media outlet. We also want to be a place for people to network with peers and be part of the community. So, HSD subscribers are invited to a breakfast on 12 September, the day after the Wild Health Summit, to mix and mingle with some of the international and local speakers and have a Q&A.

It will be our inaugural HSD networking breakfast. All HSD subscribers have complimentary tickets to attend – you just need to register for catering. It will give people the opportunity to ask deeper questions about EMRs, urgent care clinics, what’s going on in the PHN community. It’s going to be really fun and mean we create a greater sense of community going forward. It will also give you that little bit of extra value for your HSD subscription.

What nudged you to share your #ThisLittleGirlIsMe story on Linked In.

I saw all these other women all over the world sharing. A lot of them had been through so much trauma but I’ve always kept my background super private. I didn’t want people to know that I grew up in an orphanage.

But then I thought, “What if I say this and I inspire one person to know that they don’t need to be defined by how they started their lives?” I felt that if I did, then I’d have done my grandmother justice for all that she did for us. I put it quietly out there and then it just went viral. So I sent it to my daughter to give her the heads up and I was worried she was going to be upset. But she was, “Oh my god Mum, I’m so proud of you”. So it was worth it.

Some people go “Oh, that must have been a terrible upbringing”. But no, I’m so grateful for everything that I have in my life. My three sisters are the funniest, most talented, successful women and I think we just laughed our way through a lot of it because ultimately we’re Irish. It was the sisterhood.

Tell us about your grandmother?

She was born in 1917 and I think she was always a bit angry that her only career choice as a woman was teaching. She was so incredibly intelligent. She used to get The Australian and cut out articles and say to us, “I want you to make a comment on this”. You had to have an opinion in our family, you had to be able to form an argument. So, my sisters and I all grew up strong, opinionated girls.

I sometimes reflect on just how much of Grandma is in me. People probably look at me and think, “There goes that loudmouth woman on LinkedIn again, ranting on about something”. But if I can drive change or make people think about something differently – that’s exactly what Grandma would have wanted me to do.

If you could take up a secret new hobby what would it be?

I would take my dog and do therapy work with old people. In the past, I worked a couple of years in aged care and I would take people with dementia out for activities and I’d always take my dog with me. It just gave me the utmost joy.

I think people underestimate the wisdom of old people and the stories that they can tell. Also, because I’m such a hyperactive person, just taking the time to sit and have a cup of tea and listen to someone tell you about their lives – it’s kind of meditative.

Just seeing the joy when I used to go and talk to these people was immense because they’d had no other visitors all week. What kind of society do we have, where we don’t have time to sit down and just share time with people who are lonely? We need to think about it because that’s possible for all of us one day.

You won’t be lonely. You’ll still be driving ideas on LinkedIn.

Hahaha yes, LinkedIn will be my last keystroke!

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