For more than three decades, Professor Afif Hadj has straddled the worlds of medicine and aged care – as a surgeon, hospital administrator and nursing home manager and owner.
He always knew that his medical background was a positive factor in ensuring the elderly people in his care were protected from infection. But it was not until the COVID-19 pandemic that the benefits of this dual focus became fully apparent.
“Speak to any surgeon on this planet what they fear most (and they’ll tell you): it’s infection,” Prof Hadj explains. “So even before the COVID pandemic came onto the scene, we already had in place strategies to deal with an outbreak.”
Prof Hadj’s medical experience stems from his time in private practice at Eastern Health and as a Board Member at Western Health, where he was also the Chair of the hospital network’s Quality and Safety Committee. At the same time Prof Hadj was involved in the management of nursing homes before taking the helm of Hope Aged Care as owner three years ago.
Now retired from surgical practice and Board duties, this experience would help ensure Hope Aged Care emerged from the devastating COVID-19 pandemic entirely unscathed. “I was surrounded by outbreaks,” Prof Hadj says, referring to hotspot suburbs such as Brunswick. "But my places were safe – we did not have one single infection amongst our residents.”
Asked how he achieved this amazing result, Prof Hadj is modest: “You know the Scout motto? ‘Be prepared.’”
While many of the State’s other aged care facilities waited for government advice, Prof Hadj’s medical instincts kicked into gear. “Even before it became a pandemic, we cranked up what we were doing,” he says. After ordering more PPE and insisting delivery staff wear full bodysuits when entering the premises, Prof Hadj required all staff to receive weekly coronavirus tests – which he paid for himself. (This was before testing was widespread and funded through Medicare.)
It was a bold move. But in a sector where staff are known to work multiple jobs, Prof Hadj knew tests alone wouldn’t be enough. “I have control over what happens at my own site,” he explains. “But I don’t have any control about what is happening elsewhere.”
To solve this problem, he instated a new rule: his staff could either work at Hope Aged Care or somewhere else – but not both. To make this fair on his staff, Prof Hadj mandated that anyone who chose to work elsewhere would have their jobs guaranteed once the outbreak was over. And if they were out of pocket from forgoing shifts as a result of these rules, he made up the difference in their pay.
This decision proved an effective step in the fight against COVID-19, and was eventually recognised as an example of aged care best practice. Later, as the State’s aged care sector began to buckle under the weight of the pandemic with almost 2000 cases, Victoria’s Public Health Commander announced that Victoria was adopting an aged care infection prevention and control policy very similar to the one deployed by Hope Aged Care.
Today, residents at Hope Aged Care continue to live the fulfilling and meaningful lives they enjoyed before the pandemic. But even as the world returns to 'COVID normal', Prof Hadj remains vigilant. “If we want to look after our elderly, the most vulnerable, you’ve got to be prepared,” he says. “You can’t take things for granted.”
“I take my responsibilities as an owner and an operator of aged care facilities very seriously,” Prof Hadj adds. “People entrust their relatives to my care. And I feel privileged and honoured to be given that responsibility.”