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Monday, 3rd August 2015 at 11:14 am
Xavier Smerdon, Journalist
Mary Freer is the woman behind a social movement that could completely change the way patients receive care in Australia. Freer is this week’s Changemaker. She spoke to Xavier Smerdon.

Monday, 3rd August 2015
at 11:14 am
Xavier Smerdon, Journalist


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Healthy Change
Monday, 3rd August 2015 at 11:14 am

Mary Freer is the woman behind a social movement that could completely change the way patients receive care in Australia. Freer is this week’s Changemaker. She spoke to Xavier Smerdon.

A healthcare professional for more than 20 years, Mary Freer was sick of feeling like just a small cog in a big system, so she decided to leave paid employment and start Change Day.

Change Day encourages people working in the health and social care sectors to make pledges to improve their patient’s experiences of the system.

More than 50,000 people have joined Freer’s movement since she launched it two years ago.

And Freer has no plans to slow down. In this week’s Changemaker column she tells Pro Bono Australia what inspires her and just how far she wants to take her movement.

First of all, explain to me a bit about Change Day. What is it and how did it come about?

Change Day is a platform and a social movement that invites people who work in health and social care to make a pledge to do one thing that would improve their patient or client outcome.

We’ve held Change Day here in Australia two times now, in 2014 and in March this year and we’re getting ready for 2016 now.

The initiative originally started in the UK as NHS Change Day and they held their first one in 2013. It was an incredible success and I was so encouraged by what had happened that we hatched a plan to see if I could start a Change Day here in Australia and I’m very pleased to say that we’ve now got 14 other countries joining us in holding their own Change Days.

I was so inspired by what I saw in the UK. It was really just one of those phone calls where I said, why don’t we try to do this in Australia.

Of course the UK NHS Change Day is funded by the NHS, which is the world’s largest health provider. Australia’s Change Day is powered by me.

I started Change Day here really with nothing, so in the first year I didn’t even ask anyone for financial contributions, we just hatched it at a dinner party at my house and created a website using WordPress. I just sort of stayed up in the middle of the night to make it work and then launched it.

I honestly had no idea if it would even resonate with people and so I was really surprised that from those really humble beginnings we got about 15,500 people from around Australia making pledges. As soon as it was over people were calling me and emailing me saying they loved it and they couldn’t wait to take part in next year’s event. That was before I even thought about holding it for another year.

In the second year we raised money through crowdfunding and a few organisations from different corporations. We had a really tiny budget again and we managed to get over 50,000 pledges. Now we’re hoping that we’ll get 100,000 pledges in 2016.

So when you say making pledges, what do you mean by that?

People make all sorts of pledges and they’re always visible on our website so people can go there and look for inspiration.

People make pledges from creating a much more patient-centred environment in their hospital to pledging to always introduce themselves to every patient before they deliver any clinical care. People make pledges to become blood donors and organ donors, nurses have made pledges that they will be more mindful of creating a really good sleeping environment in their ward at night, because people tell us that often at night in can get very noisy in a ward and it’s easy to forget that people are sleeping while the staff are awake.

We’re just amazed at the breadth and depth of the pledges that people make but what’s even more inspiring is when hospitals or large social services or organisations decide to Change Day as a team and then you can see an incredible elevation of energy and excitement about doing the work that they do.

Tell me about your own work in the health sector.

I’ve worked in health and social care for probably about 20 years. I originally started as a social worker and I worked for quite a time in community health and women’s health. Then I moved into more policy developing and policy platforms and finally, before I stepped out to do Change Day, I was working in an executive role for a national health company.

So I’ve had a number of roles, some quite senior and influential positions in health in Australia that have connected me to global colleagues and then when I decided to make this dream come true I stepped away from all that and I wanted to see if we could do something much more grass roots around improving health care in Australia.

You mentioned that you had some fairly high profile positions within the health sector. What was it about that sector that frustrated you enough that you wanted to make a change?

I think, and I see it a lot, that we can feel really disempowered within the system and we get to the point where we feel that we can’t really make even the smallest change and I actually wanted to make some real tangible things happen.

So for me it was a matter of ‘how can I be of the most service in the most effective and powerful way with the skills that I have?’ I think for me the answer’s been working as a social entrepreneur, taking risks and letting go of the security of income and financial reward.

So how big is your team there?

We don’t have a team. We have a board with two other people on it but that’s it. We don’t have any money to pay staff. Our entire income for the last three years has probably only been about $80,000.

We’d love to have a team, especially around Change Day when it can get really stressful. We rely a lot on volunteers who are really passionate about the same things that we are. They get involved and make things happen.

We haven’t secured a financial model yet, but I think we’re very close.

Is this something that you see yourself being able to indefinitely or would you like to be able to hand it over to someone else to help it grow?

We really hope that organisations and health systems start to see the benefit of this kind of amazing groundswell of enthusiasm and innovation. When you start to get 50 or 60,000 people becoming quite animated and excited and connecting to the values that brought them into the work in the first place, that has a real tangible financial benefit to the health sector and it has a real tangible benefit to patient quality and safety.

We know that the system will start to recognise that. It’s really early days for us, this is only the second year that we’ve delivered Change Day.

I hope that we can get Change Day up and running to the point where it’s quite sustainable and then I can give it to someone else to take it wherever it needs to go next, because I’ve got lots of ideas about things that I want to do that will make an impact and I don’t think that this will be my final act.

What is it that inspires you to take on such big challenges?

I know that we are all incredibly powerful and I really want to see people connect with how much change we are capable of making.

I get really inspired when I see people go from thinking that there’s really nothing that they can contribute, they just need to do their job, follow their job description and not upset the boss, which is something that we see a lot in the health sector. And then when I see people realising that change really does start with them and then stepping out, feeling bold, being supported by others and seeing change, that’s really inspiring.

I want to see a far more empowered and invigorated health and social care workforce full of people that are really connected to the values that brought them into this work in the first place and then that sees better outcomes for clients and patients. So that’s my inspiration.   

If you know of someone that you think could make a good Changemaker, please email news@probonoaustralia.com.au


Xavier Smerdon  |  Journalist |  @XavierSmerdon

Xavier Smerdon is a journalist specialising in the Not for Profit sector. He writes breaking and investigative news articles.

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