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Fred Hollows Director named one of Australia’s 100 Women of Influence

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Director of Knowledge and Innovation at The Fred Hollows Foundation, Kirsten Armstrong, has been announced in The Australian Financial Review’s 100 Women of Influence.

Kirsten was selected from 833 entries based on several criteria, including confronting unfairness and dedicating time and energy to helping other women in their industry.

Kirsten joined The Foundation in 2014, overseeing a team that researches and innovates to generate more impact from the organisation’s work.

Her passion for building stronger health systems was sparked in 1999 by the death of a colleague’s mother from kidney failure, while Kirsten was working as an actuary in Russia.

“I was shocked to learn that my colleague’s family was bankrupted in just a few days paying thousands of dollars to access a dialysis machine,” Kirsten said.

“At the time I was working to overhaul the retirement income system in Russia and wanted to use my skills to create financing systems that protected the poorest people.

“But that experience made me realise retirement incomes were irrelevant if people couldn’t meet their immediate healthcare needs.”

Kirsten returned to Australia in 2002, joining international firm PwC to lead teams of actuaries, economists, clinicians and health system managers to improve health policies.

She was drawn to The Fred Hollows Foundation for its commitment to empowering local health services and has driven some of the organisation’s biggest innovations.

Kirsten led efforts to launch the world’s fourth development impact bond, the Cameroon Cataract Bond, which will help a new eye hospital in Cameroon become self-sustaining and deliver 5,000 cataract surgeries every year.

“Working at The Foundation has been an incredible opportunity to create sustainable health systems that will protect the world’s most impoverished people into the future,” Kirsten said.

“My goal really harks back to Fred’s vision – to ensure eye care is universal and prioritised in health systems around the world.”

The Fred Hollows Foundation’s CEO Ian Wishart congratulated Kirsten and commended her dedication to advancing gender equity.

“It’s a sad reality that there is a gender gap in eye health, with women 1.3 times more likely to be blind or vision impaired than men,” Ian said. “Kirsten spearheaded The Foundation’s first gender strategy, She Sees, and organised training for our programs staff to respond to the unique challenges that women face.”

Last month, Kirsten saw an uplifting result in Bangladesh. The local team had created a new operating theatre for cataract surgeries in a maternal and child health care centre, and most of the patients are now women.

Another hospital in Bangladesh was growing the next generation of female leaders.

When a senior doctor proudly introduced his five new trainee doctors to Kirsten, he said, “Four of them are women. Fred Hollows staff are always talking about women, so I thought you’d like that!”

Kirsten’s career advice boils down to surrounding herself with people who inspire her.

“Being listed among 100 amazing Australian women who are making a difference every day is very special,” Kirsten said. “But it’s nothing compared to meeting the people whose lives my work touches – the workers who retire with just a little more to spend, the women who’ll become leaders in their hospitals because of opportunities we’ve helped create, and the people whose sight we’ve restored. That’s the real award.”

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