Carol Bennett is the Chief Executive Officer of the Consumers’ Health Forum, Australia’s peak health consumer organisation. It is a role which she says is the ultimate job for her. The job draws on her strategic skills, courage and passion about social justice.
She was born in 1968 and grew up in Canberra – a town where she was surrounded by politics, in a household where issues of equity and social justice were a passion. She was educated in the public school system and went on to study for a health science degree at Canberra University, followed by a Master of Public Policy at the Australian National University.
Carol chose to work in health policy because it is so important for people’s quality of life. She was attracted her to the health consumer movement because the people who rely on the health system have far less power and access to resources than those who provide the services. She questions the allocation of resources within the health system and whether people receive services based on need rather than the various ‘machinations which are always at play in the health system’. She points out that “There are some powerful interests in the health sector and certainly decisions about health are not usually based on the needs of health consumers and what is needed to improve health outcomes. More often than not they are based on the interests of the powerful, influential professional and industry groups. “
Looking back on her career Carol believes that her experience has been leading to her current role in CHF. Her career included two periods at CHF, firstly in a student placement while at university, and later as the organisation’s first Quality Use of Medicines project officer, working to improve consumer’s access to vital medicines and the ways in which they are used. Carol’s experience has included working policy and advocacy roles in Canberra and Melbourne, in non-government organisations advocating on drug and alcohol issues. She also briefly worked in government, but quickly realised that this was not for her. It meant that she had to subjugate her own values while representing views that were often inconsistent with her own. However, she did acquire useful insights into the workings of governments.
Carol lives in Canberra, is now married with a 5 year old son, and successfully juggles her personal and professional life. Her life is pretty busy and pressured, but, she says, no more pressured than for many other women. She feels lucky because she has good access to family support with her mother living nearby.
As an advocate for health consumers, Carol aims to be as professional as possible and ensures that the organisation’s work is underpinned by evidence. She sees two key aspects to the organisations advocacy. The first is to inform policy and to do that she needs to understand the issues confronting consumers as they use the health system. To do this, CHF consults widely with its broad network of health consumers and combines this research with the more traditional forms of evidence to make a powerful and compelling case for reform. The other aspect is communication – giving a voice to consumers – in the media and at conferences and other forums. Under Carol’s leadership the organisation’s public profile and standing has grown.
Leadership in this sector is not without its challenges. She says that the increasing strength and influence of the health consumer voice is not always welcomed. Many of the professional and industry groups are well resourced and have always been very powerful force in framing health policy and practice. Those groups have often claimed to represent consumers themselves and now feel threatened when challenged by consumer advocates.
One of the most sensitive areas in health policy centres is around the way the health system is financed, and how much is paid to the professionals and industries upon whom people rely. Early in her CEO role at CHF, Carol was embroiled in this issue when the government announced that it would be reducing the rebates for some ophthalmological services, as the rebates were subsidising unreasonably high fees. CHF sided with the government, publicly challenging the ophthalmologists ‘over their huge levels of income’.
Looking back, Carol sees it as a landmark issue because it demonstrated ‘that there is an opportunity to look at what we pay for in health, and to question it, and doctors don’t often get their incomes questioned’. It opened other doors for consumer involvement in other health financing areas, including the review of the Medicare Benefits Schedule. It is an opportunity to question how health is valued and paid for. She sees is as starting to shift the culture of entitlement of powerful health professionals and industry.
Paying for health care, she says, is ‘ the elephant in the room – there is an incredible inequity in pouring so much money into lining pockets of health professionals and industry at the expense of consumers who can’t get access to essential services. So it’s about holding that up to the light and being prepared to follow through.
Dealing with the responses from some professionals and industry has not been easy – ‘you are vulnerable, particularly when you are putting at risk powerful professional and commercial interests. You are putting yourself on the line and it does make yourself vulnerable to retaliation when you are having a go at them’. However, Carol’s is not deterred by this pressure. She says ‘its holding the line, holding your nerve and believing in what you are doing and why ………..’Those groups are used to challenging and standing up for what they believe it and they need to know that we are also going to do that and that they need to respect us for doing what they do’.
According to Carole the best way of making yourself less vulnerable is to make sure that you have the facts right and to believe in what you are doing and why you are doing it. ‘I keep reminding myself that I am here for a purpose, and that purpose is to represent the interests of the people who are the members of CHF, and who rely on us to advocate strongly on their behalf.’ She says that she has a job to do and that ‘it’s not about me personally, it’s the role’. As an advocate, you have to be prepared to follow things through. ‘Once you’ve put it out there you have to keep going with it’.
While the job can sometimes be tough, there are rewards as well. When the advocacy leads to a change for the better, and there are benefits for consumers, there is great satisfaction in knowing that you have been instrumental in bringing about that change. ‘When you can say that we’ve influenced things, we’ve made a difference we contributed to that then that is incredibly motivating.
Leadership is something that Carol is prepared for and readily accepts. She believes that her career has prepared her well for the role. It has given her a good understanding of the issues and how the health system and government works. She also has a deep passion and commitment to the issues and the ability to work with and listen to the people for whom she is advocating.
Carol has worked mainly in a sector that is over-stretched and under-resourced and which has not provided her with any formal leadership training. But, fundamentally, she thinks that ‘you can do all the training you like, but you really need to learn by doing and by learning from mistakes’. Carol herself learned mainly from people she worked for, respected and enjoyed working with. She says they taught her a lot and they demonstrated good leadership.
She thinks that, in general, male leaders operate differently from women. Men, she says, are better at compartmentalising their lives. They can be different people in different contexts – they see work as a role and are more matter of fact about it. For women, it’s more about doing their job as the person they are – ‘for myself, I try to be consistent with who I am’.
She sees her job as a huge task but she has a passion for it and wants to make sure that when she leaves the role the organisation will be in a stronger, better position than when she started, and that consumers are better off. Carol believes it is important that she herself acts as a mentor and encourages other women to take on leadership roles and to take on new challenges.
Carol’s role comes at a price. She doesn’t have a lot of time to do the things that would mean a more balanced life. She would like to spend more time with her 5 year old son. However, it is important for her that she feels that what she is doing is making a big difference to a whole lot of people. Otherwise it would be difficult to justify the cost of missing out on so much in other parts of her life. So the sense of achieving something is important – if it wasn’t she couldn’t do it.
Her advice to other women considering a similar role is that ‘it’s a fabulous opportunity – a real privilege to be in a role where you can influence and make a difference. In a non-government organisation you have huge autonomy; it tests all your skills and your patience, and tests you out as a person. If you have a strong passion and drive, and believe that health consumers’ interests are fundamentally important – it’s a fantastic role but you need energy and resolve. There is no smooth road – it’s about balancing the role with other parts of your life.
As the CEO of the Consumers’ Health Forum, Carol Bennett challenges many of the vested interests in the health care system. She is driven by her passion for social justice and belief that decent health care should be available to everyone.
Profile by Kate Moore