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Professor Catherine Hill leads ARA: waiving fees and working at a distance in unusual times

Professor Catherine Hill

ARA president Professor Catherine Hill

COVID-19 ensured there was no 2020 ARA Annual Scientific Meeting, no face-to-face AGM and no hoopla for the outgoing and incoming boards of directors at the conference dinner.

However a chat with the new president Professor Catherine Hill suggests a no-nonsense, calm and considered approach to what has been an unusual year for everyone.

In fact, it may be that the national lockdown due to COVID-19 has had some upsides, according to the rheumatologist who wears many hats as a clinician, a researcher and in various professional roles at state and national levels.

“I live in South Australia anyway. I’m not on the east coast. I’m used to doing things from afar. But obviously this year has seen a lot less travel … so I feel I’ve become more productive actually.”

And she says that COVID-19 has shown the ARA to be “a pretty agile and responsive association”.

“It brought us together as an association and I think we have worked well together to support each other. We’ve been doing regular bulletins to members and been in contact with the College and AMA and other professional societies to sort out things like telehealth item numbers, etcetera.”

Like many organisations, the ARA has also pivoted to support members in new ways.

Waiving fees

Fortunate to be in a sound financial position, the ARA has waived its membership fees next year – knowing that a majority of members would have experienced a drop in their income due to the pandemic.

“ARA is in a very strong financial position. That gives us some flexibility to help our members out which is great,” she says.

“Given the changes with COVID-19 and the likelihood we are not going to be able to get many face-to-face meetings for the rest of this year, supporting members with educational opportunities is going to be really important.”

For example, some of the content that would have been presented at the ASM will now be presented in a series of six webinars.

The revised Strategic Plan 2020-2023 outlines the ARA objectives and planned actions for the organisation and its leadership team.

“Matching our current workforce with the population needs is really challenging … I think that is something that previous presidents have said before but it is an ongoing issue.”

The perennial issues include improving access to care in regional and remote Australia and also for paediatric rheumatology patients.

Professor Hill notes that juvenile arthritis affects about 1% of children – about the same proportion as children with type 1 diabetes.

Yet compared to the numbers in paediatric endocrinology, there is a huge shortage of paediatric rheumatologists.

“There are very few available training positions,” she laments.

“You get into a vicious circle because if you haven’t got enough training positions then you don’t train enough paediatric rheumatologists and then you don’t have enough paediatric rheumatologists to train the workforce.”

She says advocating for an adequate workforce and more funding for training positions, is part of the ARA’s role in advocating not just for members but for the best possible rheumatological care for patients.

And some of that involves partnering with other organisations such as Arthritis Australia on the National Strategic Arthritis Action Plan or in advocating for more rheumatology nurses and other allied health professionals.

Research and resources

Close to her heart as a clinical researcher, ARA is also committing to achieve a higher profile, volume and quality of musculoskeletal research.

“We have had very good growth in the ARA Research Trust which was set up a number of years ago and is starting to reach maturity,” she says.

“Even in the current pandemic, we have a good amount of money in that and we are hoping to change the way we divest some of that money and working with other groups e.g. NHMRC, ANZMUSC, and Arthritis Australia to increase the funding for research.”

Professor Hill says a clinical resources committee will also be developing living guidelines, initially for rheumatoid arthritis but subsequently for other rheumatic diseases.

“This is really innovative and exciting for the ARA.”

The first tranche of work will be funded through a Value in Prescribing grant.

“…and then if that goes well, we will have to make a business case to the ARA to continue that sort of work. It has got a lot of support from the members so far.”

Professor Hill works at both the Royal Adelaide Hospital and The Queen Elizabeth Hospital, where she is director of rheumatology. She has also worked in private practice. Among her many other roles, she chairs the South Australian Medicine Evaluation Panel and is a member of the PBAC so is very familiar with government and government processes.

Her research interests include the epidemiology of rheumatic diseases, osteoarthritis and vasculitis.

While she brings a wide range of valuable experience to the ARA leadership, so does the rest of the team.

“I think the great thing about this current board is we have got a really broad range of experience and expertise and people who are willing to step up. We are so lucky.”