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A thoracic physician who sent a patient with serious respiratory problems for “esoteric lung massage”. A GP who prescribed high levels of the pain killer, oxycontin, to drug-dependent patients. A dentist whose practice was unhygienic with inadequate infection control. These are the daily fodder of the NSW Health Care Complaints Commission. Sue Dawson, a career public servant who studied social work then urban planning before completing her law degree leads the organisation and its 87 staff.

This year, the Commission expects to receive more than 7,000 complaints (12 per cent more than the previous year), commence 400 new investigations, and continue more than 100 prosecutions of registered doctors, nurses, dentists and other health practitioners. It also conducts hearings to address risks posed by unregistered health practitioners, and issues prohibition orders and public warnings as a result of these investigations.

“People say to me that number is concerning, but I believe every complaint is an important opportunity for the Commission to look into situations when things go wrong and learn from them,” says Dawson. “The fact that we have people feeling comfortable about making complaints, and empowered to question the care they have been given, is a good thing. “In the context of the tens of millions of health services delivered in NSW each year, the number of complaints is reassurance that the quality of our care is good.”

Dawson, who has held senior roles in the then NSW Department of Community Services and the Commonwealth Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations, and Department of Social Services, tells JANE SOUTHWARD why she started studying law later in life.

“My day starts in solitude in my home in Sydney’s inner west. I sit quietly with my coffee, usually outdoors, and prepare myself mentally for the day. I start my emails from home because there’s no point sitting in traffic when you can cut your commute in half by going in a little later.

I arrive at the office by 9 and usually leave about 8 at night. They are long hours, but I treasure my weekends. When I finish the working week, I like to have the mental space to reflect on what I achieved this week and what I plan for next week. For me, it’s like organised mindfulness. The greatest gift I can give the organisation is perspective and prioritising what matters.

I love nature and there’s nothing better than going for a kayak at Pittwater or sitting on the beach and watching eagles soar. I also have two beautiful standard schnauzers, Jordan and Jet, and they show me how to demonstrate unconditional love every day.

My work days are varied. There are so many different types of matters and each has its own confronting dimensions.

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