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See how far we’ve come at Coffs Harbour!

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23rd May, 2024

We’ve been transforming Anatomical Pathology services at our Coffs Harbour laboratory, attracting more pathologists and support staff, and achieving better outcomes for patients.

A pas­sion for work­ing in region­al areas has been the dri­ving force behind the career of Dr Richard Tustin, Senior Pathol­o­gist and Clin­i­cal Direc­tor for Anatom­i­cal Pathol­o­gy at our Coffs Har­bour laboratory.

Richard has worked hard to cre­ate an AP lab that now serves the entire Mid North coast region, even tak­ing on work from oth­er parts of the state when needed.

“I’m from South Africa orig­i­nal­ly and have worked in region­al areas all over the world,” he explains.

“I have found that patients in region­al areas don’t always have access to the same anatom­i­cal pathol­o­gy ser­vices as those in met­ro­pol­i­tan areas. My phi­los­o­phy and pas­sion is for bridg­ing this gap.

“We have large­ly suc­ceed­ed in doing so in Coffs Har­bour and sur­rounds, in an area extend­ing from Port Mac­quar­ie to Grafton,” Richard said.

“Coffs Har­bour Base Hos­pi­tal pro­vides full sur­gi­cal and onco­log­i­cal ser­vices to the com­mu­ni­ty. In order to sup­port these ser­vices, it was essen­tial we devel­op our AP ser­vice to ful­fill the demands for rapid diag­no­sis as well as prog­nos­tic indi­ca­tors for var­i­ous cancers.”

When he arrived in Coffs Har­bour 7 years ago, Richard realised the lab­o­ra­to­ry need­ed upgrad­ing if it was to attract more pathol­o­gists and lab­o­ra­to­ry staff.

Since then, NSW Health Pathol­o­gy has invest­ed in build­ing a ded­i­cat­ed Anatom­i­cal Pathol­o­gy lab­o­ra­to­ry, histopathol­o­gy lab­o­ra­to­ry, a suite of pathol­o­gists’ offices for report­ing as well as installing state-of-the-art equipment.

A group of people wearing lab coats working in a laboratory.
Staff of Coffs Har­bour AP at micro­to­my stations
A man sits at a desk with a microscope.
Dr Renukadas P Sakalka­le, Senior Staff Spe­cial­ist Pathologist

“We now have 6 full-time pathol­o­gists work­ing in the area, up from only 1 full-time pathol­o­gist in 2017,” Richard said.

“We have an auto­mat­ed immuno­his­to­chem­istry stain­er on site, with the aim to pur­chase a sec­ond one short­ly. This enables us to pro­vide rapid turn­around times for biop­sies and oth­er urgent specimens.

“As a result of this trans­for­ma­tion in ser­vices the work­load has expand­ed con­sid­er­ably from 6000 patient episodes back in 2017 when I com­menced work­ing here to over 18,000 cas­es in 2023.”

Richard says his lab­o­ra­to­ry team has devel­oped excel­lent work­ing rela­tion­ships with col­leagues in the clin­i­cal disciplines.

“We rou­tine­ly pro­vide diag­noses with­in 24 hours for breast can­cer patients as well as patients with metasta­t­ic dis­ease. We report all the breast screen biop­sies for the mid and far north coast too.

“We also pro­vide a pathol­o­gy ser­vice to the pri­vate sec­tor – the work­load of which has grown con­sid­er­ably over the past 7 years.

“The psy­cho­log­i­cal impact on patients wait­ing for a diag­no­sis is extreme­ly stress­ful and the soon­er they get a defin­i­tive man­age­ment plan, the bet­ter. The ben­e­fits of ear­ly treat­ment speak for them­selves too.

“In line with my think­ing of attract­ing pathol­o­gists to work in region­al areas we have estab­lished 2 reg­is­trar posi­tions in our lab­o­ra­to­ry, both of which are filled. I find it extreme­ly reward­ing work­ing in region­al areas.”

A woman in a white lab coat sits at a workstation in a laboratory.

Senior Hos­pi­tal Sci­en­tist, Zoe Schmidt at embed­ding sta­tion.

“I knew I wanted to do something related to cancer.”

Man­ag­ing the lab­o­ra­to­ry along­side Richard is Coffs Har­bour local, Zoe Schmidt, a 27-year-old Senior Hos­pi­tal Sci­en­tist who went off to uni­ver­si­ty with dreams of help­ing peo­ple with cancer.

“I did­n’t know what I want­ed to do (when I began study­ing), but I knew that I want­ed to do some­thing relat­ed to can­cer,” Zoe said.

“Can­cer affects a lot of fam­i­lies, but it affect­ed my fam­i­ly quite a bit, so it was an area I want­ed to make a dif­fer­ence in.”

After work­ing in lab­o­ra­to­ries in Wol­lon­gong and Syd­ney, Zoe says she’s very hap­py to be back in her hometown.

“I find the work way more reward­ing in a small lab because you get expo­sure to things that you don’t get in a big lab. There’s so much more vari­ety to our work in Coffs Har­bour,” she said.

“Now we are get­ting big­ger, a lot of our staff are skilled in a lot of areas so they can move around, and that’s what makes it rewarding.

“It was daunt­ing ini­tial­ly tak­ing on the lab manager’s role, but I have great men­tors with Richard and Trevor Bail­lie (the for­mer AP lab man­ag­er) – it’s great to always be learn­ing and watch­ing what they do.

“We work very close­ly with the pathol­o­gists here in region­al, so the rela­tion­ship the staff get to have with the pathol­o­gist is real­ly enrich­ing, includ­ing get­ting to learn how and why we do things the way we do.”

Zoe says patients get access to fast, accu­rate results.

“Recent­ly we were con­tact­ed by a woman who want­ed to say thank you,” Zoe said.

“She’d had surgery on a Mon­day and by Tues­day after­noon got a phone call from her sur­geon giv­ing her the results of can­cer tests, which were all-clear.

“It was great that she want­ed to thank us for the fast turn­around of results, but I told her we just did what we always do!”

Richard says he’s proud of what’s been achieved at the Coffs Har­bour lab­o­ra­to­ry and his team remains focused on get­ting the best pos­si­ble out­comes for region­al patients.

A group of people standing in a laboratory smiling.
Some of the AP lab staff at Coffs Har­bour (Back: Jack Tibbey, Nao­mi Dal­ton, Zoe Schmidt, Kate Osborne, Saroj Raut. Front: Jen­ny Pow­er, Kristy Scott, Eliz­a­beth Tan)


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