Author Archives: clahrcwm

End of Year Blog: Reflections on my Time as a Non-Executive Director

I must apologise for the hiatus in blogging. This coincided with the Collaboration for Leadership in Applied Health Research and Care (CLAHRC) grant application – a £10 million grant from the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR), with over £20 million of matched funds. Following this, I successfully applied for a job to lead a Centre for International Research at the University of Warwick, and so I have been a bit busy.

I have had the privilege of serving as a non-executive director on the Sandwell and West Birmingham Hospitals NHS Trust Board for the last year and a half. Regrettably, I now have to resign this important post to pursue the above opportunities. This is a good time to reflect on my time on the Board.

Seventeen years had passed since I last served on a hospital board – the United Leeds Teaching Hospitals Group. I was an executive director in Leeds and this is, of course, a different role to that of non-executive director. The biggest change, however, was in the balance of topics discussed in the board.

Firstly, discussion of finance makes up a relatively small proportion of the business of a current board whereas it was a principle topic for discussion in the earlier epoch. Secondly, quality metrics now take up a large portion of board time and this was certainly not the case two decades ago. Ironically, the number of external groups who scrutinise the hospital has also increased dramatically. The Care Quality Commission, Monitor (or the Trust Development Authority), Litigation Authority, Health and Wellbeing Boards, various types of commissioning organisation, and many other bodies scrutinise hospital ‘performance’. The hospital is now a veritable goldfish bowl, and so the board is but one of many organisations providing ‘assurance’.

I shall return to my own views on the implications of all this external scrutiny in just a moment. In the meantime, I can report that during my brief 18 months on the Board, two very important developments took place, which many board members may not encounter during a complete period of tenure.

Firstly, our Chief Executive, John Adler, moved to the big and turbulent Leicester Teaching Hospital Group and so we had to find a replacement. Appointment of a chief executive is the biggest single decision that a board can make. It was fascinating to participate in this crucially important process, and very gratifying to watch the new Chief Executive, Toby Lewis, take control of the tiller. I think that to be a leader one has to want to lead and it has been a joy to watch Toby take charge. He is also an unusually, or should I say particularly, ‘cerebral’ chief executive. Intellectual curiosity is a safeguard against complacency and error. Hospital consultants are a clever lot (mean IQ above 125?) and they respect a leader who is more than a match for them. It was a delight to observe the constructive, but sometimes piquant, interaction between Toby and one of my peer non-executive directors, herself something of a force of nature.

The other big event was recognition, by the government, that a long-standing proposed new hospital scheme would be a suitable candidate for consideration under HM Treasury’s new model, Public Finance Initiative (PFI). With the exception of Chair Richard Samuda, who had previously been chief executive of a property company, my non-executive colleagues and I had to undergo a steep learning curve. The axioms behind the PFI are fiendishly complicated, yet it is essential for all non-executive directors to have a clear understanding of the decisions involved. Modelling future financial and clinical consequences of a new hospital obviously involves a large number of assumptions, including the amount of risk that can be transferred, whether the cost of transferring that risk is reasonable (given the alternatives), what would happen to ‘market share’, how much patient care will be transferred to the community (and with what financial and clinical consequences), and many other factors to which the model is sensitive. The important principle is that it is not just the future under the new building that must be modelled, but also the counterfactual under a scenario where the building does not go ahead – in other words there is no status quo. I came away with the idea that, quite apart from its impact on the nation’s financial position, PFI is not such a disastrous vehicle for hospital finance as many think, especially if, as expected, some Public Dividend Capital is added to the mix. Indeed, it was also prudent to model the consequences of methods to raise capital other than PFI. Architectural issues are also important. For example, I understand that time and motion studies show that single wards reduce staff efficiency by about 6%, compared to multiple occupancy wards. It is also extremely important that the design can accommodate future expansion. As our accomplished Director of Strategy and Organisational Development, Mike Sharon, put it, “the only thing we can be sure of is that we cannot be sure of the optimum size for a hospital 20 years hence.”

I will return now to the question of the role of the board in a time of increasing external scrutiny. To my mind, the corollary is obvious – the board needs to think less of itself as critical and more as friend. That is to say, it can (notwithstanding its statutory responsibility) place itself more on the side of the poacher than the gamekeeper, with respect to assurance. To my mind, executive directors need another scrutiny body like the proverbial ‘hole in the head’.

So what is the role of non-executive directors, given that their scrutiny role has been, at least partially, subsumed by others? The obvious answer is to assist the executive directors in their tasks. This begs the question of whether the executives need such assistance! Here, I think the answer is somewhat nuanced. Firstly, there’s obvious need for a group who can hire and fire the chief executive. That indispensable role cannot be left to one individual. The second role of non-executives is in developing strategy for the organisation. Here, their primary role is to supply external ‘ballast’ in the form of clever and committed people who can contribute by increasing total brain power and by bringing in the perspective of someone who does not have their nose to the coal face. Their last role is to bring specialist expertise. However, I think that this is the least important role because expertise can always be brought in. Nevertheless, non-executive directors with legal and accountancy backgrounds definitely add something to discussions and may spot ‘unknown unknowns’. In my own small way, I tried to bring an academic perspective to bear and to form something of a bridge between the Hospital and the University. As a researcher, I pushed the Board to go beyond simply scrutinising data with which they were presented and scrutinise the method by which the data are collected. This is important to detect and mitigate bias. Statistical control charts should be used to allow for the play of chance. I hope these ideas have been taken to heart. In my opinion, however, too much is made of lessons that can be learnt from other industries – experience of commanding a ship at sea or running a biscuit factory is not much use in a hospital. Returning ambassadors and captains of industry are valuable because they are intelligent people (mainly) who naturally take a strategic perspective, rather than because they bring specific knowledge from these domains. Part and parcel of taking a greater role in strategy is the importance of finance. I do not go along with the fashion of criticising boards that emphasise money. Firstly, money is the language of choice and I would like to see more, not less, emphasis on value for money. Secondly, the surest way to undermine the care of future patients is to overspend in the current year. Maintaining financial probity is the bedrock of patient safety, as our excellent Director of Finance and Performance Management, Robert White, well understood.

Given my sense that boards of NHS hospitals should take a more prominent role in strategy rather than in simply conducting an assurance function, I was interested to see that this is precisely what is advocated in a new business book “Boards that Lead: When to Take Charge, When to Partner, and When to Stay Out of the Way” by Charan, Carey and Useem. These authors use a huge amount of experience and empirical observation to reach the conclusion that non-executives should be “strategic partners”. They also make the point that non-executives can subtract as well as add value to a company and a lot depends on the personality of the individuals concerned. Large egos, hobby horses, low intelligence and unwillingness to engage with detail can get in the way. For me, the hardest thing was finding enough time to fulfil my duties on the Board while holding down a highly competitive day job. But I leave with thanks to my Board colleagues, and a special “thank you” to our sure-footed Chair, Richard Samuda, and diligent Trust Secretary, Simon Grainger-Payne, who helped me settle in. I will miss working with such a committed and talented group of people, and wish them and the hospital all the very best.


Thoughts on Culture

This week, Donald Berwick came across the Atlantic to tell us how to make the NHS safe.[1] Among the many expected things that he said was the ubiquitous concept of “the safety culture.” In fact, wherever I go I encounter this nebulous concept of culture; ‘It is a question of culture. We must change the culture. It’s all in the culture.’

A huge amount has been written, of course, about this concept of culture. However, organisational culture is usually treated as a discrete entity, disembodied from the broader society and from the subsections or departments that make up an organisation. If so many of the failures of the NHS are a question of culture, then part of the problem may lie not in the health service itself, but in broader society. So what can we say about British culture as a whole; are we a nation of high rectitude or turpitude?

It turns out that there is a scale of national morality. I refer to Fisman and Miguel’s paper on “cultures of corruption” from 2006.[2] These brilliant authors linked the New York Police Department database to that of the United Nations diplomatic corps. They were thus able to determine the extent to which diplomats from various countries violated their parking privileges. I knew that Norway would be squeaky clean, while there were other countries that I suspected would frequently violate parking restrictions under diplomatic immunity. I suspected that the United Kingdom would be down there in the middle grade. However, I was as surprised as I was delighted to see that we score among the highest probity countries, such as Denmark and Japan. In case you are wondering which country recorded the highest rate of violation per diplomat, this was Kuwait, followed by Egypt, Chad, Sudan and Bulgaria. High offending countries tended to have high scores on the international corruption index and also lower per capita GDPs (gross domestic product). As a fan of Max Weber I suspect that moral behaviour generates wealth rather than the other way round, and there is some evidence in favour of my position from John Kay.[3]

Of course diplomats are not a random selection of the countries from which they emanate, but one has to consider the results as reassuring. To what extent does national culture determine the culture among particular services; doctors and nurses, teachers and the police, for instance? I don’t know; do you? And to what extent is a culture in an individual department a reflection of the organisational culture. On this latter point there is evidence from NHS staff surveys. Local culture trumps organisational culture and this is consistent with my own research work [4] and that of others [5] showing that standards of care are poorly correlated across organisations.

So what we have is people nested in departments, nested in organisations, nested in countries. It would appear that there is little correlation between culture in departments and in organisations, but the extent to which organisational culture correlates with national culture is more ambiguous. I suspect that national culture is more important than organisational and even departmental culture in determining the behaviour of individual clinicians. I would be extremely interested in any further evidence on these points.

In the meantime, we will carry on talking about culture, as though we understand it; and plan to change it, as though we could do it. What else can we do? And the evidence base does give us some strong clues. For example, we should be very leery about the use of financial incentives. I read a report on a paper recently that showed that performance following the withdrawal of incentives is worse than performance among people who never had the incentives in the first place.[6] What about targets? The situation here seems very nuanced; sometimes they seem to work well (infection-control) and sometimes they displace other worthwhile objectives (waiting times). I hypothesise that targets work best when the people at whom they are directed are convinced that the target is worthwhile. In any event, once the structure of a health service is well established it is through hearts and minds that objectives are achieved and, quite reasonably, we codify this idea through the concept of culture.

My research work shows that, from a technical point of view, the NHS has improved over the last decade or so.[7,8] The patient survey shows that there has been some improvement in the caring side of health, but not enough. Changing culture so that people become more caring in their attitude is a big challenge since behaviour in this regard depends largely on a person’s innate characteristics and on their upbringing. The NIHR recently elicited a call for research into this topic. Unfortunately I did not have time to apply and I look forward to reading about the results in due course. In the meantime I reflect that organisations are increasingly seeing the moral education of their staff as a worthwhile and important objective. As our churches empty, senior managers must assume the mantle of St Paul.


[1] National Advisory Group on the Safety of Patients in England. A Promise to Learn – a Commitment to Act. Improving the Safety of Patients in England. 2013. Available at: [Accessed 9th August 2013].

[2] Fisman R, Miguel E. Cultures of Corruption: Evidence from Diplomatic Parking Tickets. NBER Working Paper No. 12312. 2006. Available at: [Accessed 9th August 2013].

[3] Kay J. The Truth about Markets: Why Some Nations are Rich, but Most Remain Poor. London: Penguin Books Ltd . 2004.

[4] Wilson B, Thornton JG, Hewison J, Lilford RJ, Watt I, Braunholtz D, Robinson M. The Leeds University Maternity Audit Project. Int J Qual Health Care. 2002; 14(3): 175-181. [Article link]

[5] Jha AK, Li Z, Orav EJ, Epstein AM. Care in US Hospitals – the Hospital Quality Alliance Program. NEJM. 2005; 353(3): 265-74. [Article link]

[6] The Economist. Making Pay Work. The Economist 25th May 2013. Available at [Accessed 9th August 2013].

[7] Benning A, et al. Large scale organisational intervention to improve patient safety in four UK hospitals: mixed method evaluation. BMJ. 2011; 342: d195. [Article link]

[8] Benning A, et al. Multiple component patient safety intervention in English hospitals: controlled evaluation of second phase. BMJ. 2011; 342: d199. [Article link]

The Microbiology Revolution in Africa

I went on a ward round in Juba a couple of years ago. The temperature was about 45°C and we had over 40 patients to see. We came across a man with a very high fever. The automatic diagnosis was malaria, but the consultant in charge of the ward round thought he might have typhoid. There were no facilities for a microbiological workup, so he simply ordered a combination of quinine and a broad spectrum antibiotic. However, with the modern generation of high-speed gene sequencing techniques it would be impossible to test him for any serious bacterial infection. A facility for rapid bedside diagnosis would have many advantages in low-income settings. Firstly, it would assist in normal patient care by targeting therapy more accurately. Secondly, it would save on resources. Thirdly, it is likely to reduce overall antibiotic use and hence the incidence of antibiotic resistance. Lastly, it will enable targeted contact tracing. For example, if three patients were admitted with the same bacterium, then their addresses could be compared and if their homes were in close proximity, further enquiries and public health initiatives could be undertaken.

The cost of rapid gene sequencing is following Moore’s Law and will soon be under £100 per sample. The point will soon be reached when rapid gene sequencing is less expensive than conventional microbiological culture. In a country like South Sudan, it may be possible to bypass normal culture technology and move straight to sequencing techniques. After all many developing countries have bypassed landline telephone technology and moved straight onto mobile phones. It would be interesting to carry out a health economic analysis to determine the point where sequencing techniques would become the most cost-effective option in a low-income country context. Such an analysis would need to take into account all of the advantages above, including that of contact tracing. If sequencing techniques could be extended to parasites, then the method will become more cost-effective still.

Doctors and natural scientists who became Head of State

I was invited to give a speech to the delegation of the Sun Yat-sen University earlier this week. Sun Yat-sen himself was a medical doctor who became the first president of the Republic of China, while the current president of the University, Professor Ning-sheng Xu, was a natural scientist.

Just for fun, and for some light relief, my colleague, Peter Chilton, and I decided to compile a provisional list of doctors or natural scientists who became presidents, prime ministers, (or equivalent), which we enclose below.

Please let me know if you have any other names to add to this list.

One thing is for sure, lawyers outnumber doctors and natural scientists combined by an order of magnitude.

Medical Doctors - Sali Berisha, Prime Minister of Albania, 2005–present; Navin Ramgoolam, Prime Minister of Mauritius, 2005–present; Ram Baran Yadav, President of Nepal, 2008–present; Federico Franco, President of Paraguay, 2012–present; Denzil Douglas, Prime Minister of Saint Kitts & Nevis, 1995–present; Bashar al-Assad, President of Syria, 2000–present; Wael Nader Al-Halq, Prime Minister of Syria, 2012–present; Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow; President of Turkmenistan, 2006–present. Baghdadi Ali Mahmudi, Prime Minister of Libya, 2006–2011; Hastings Banda, President of Malawi 1966–1994; Mohammad Najibullah Ahmadzai, President of the Republic of Afghanistan, 1987–1992; François Duvalier, President of Haiti, 1957–1971; Sir Milton Margai, Prime Minister of Sierra Leone, 1961–1964; Sir Earle Page, Prime Minister of Australia, 1939; Sun Yat-sen, Provisional President of the Republic of China 1912; Sir Charles Tupper, Prime Minister of Canada, 1896. Natural Scientists - Elio Di Rupo, Prime Minister of Belgium, 2011–present; Xi Jinping, President of the People’s Republic of China 2013–present; Angela Merkel, Chancellor of Germany 2005–present; Keith Mitchell, Prime Minister of Grenada, 2013–present; Valdis Dombrovskis, Prime Minister of Latvia, 2009–present; Norovyn Altankhuyag, Prime Minister of Mongolia, 2012–present; Pope Francis (Jorge Bergoglio), Sovereign of Vatican City 2013–present. Margaret Thatcher, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, 1979–1990.

Provisional list of Heads of State, Presidents [Pr] and Prime Ministers [PM] who were medical doctors or natural scientists.

Performance-related pay – the importance of selecting the right metric

A study by Manifest and MM&K1 has shown that CEOs’ pay increased by 10 per cent over the past year. The UK’s 100 highest earning CEOs were paid £425 million in 2012. The research says this is £45 million more than 2011. The report says the increased payments were mainly due to Long Term Incentive Plan (LTIP) payouts. This is linked to share price movements.

There was an interview on Radio 4’s Today2 programme with the chief executive of Manifest, Sarah Wilson. She argued that CEOs are benefiting from factors beyond their control when share prices go up, i.e. they are benefiting from things for which they are not responsible. She said each company should be looked at individually. We need to find factors that are sensitive to the performance of people. For example, it might be better to reward CEOs based on customer service than share value.

You might think that hospital mortality and share value have nothing to do with each other but they are similar in one respect – neither measure is under the control of management. As a company’s share price fluctuation turns more on factors such as qualitative easing and the economy, so a hospital’s overall mortality rate can be little influenced by management. This is because most deaths are inevitable and only a small proportion can be prevented. Hospitals should not be rewarded (or sanctioned) for things that are not under their control. To do so produces perverse incentives and so too does use of the wrong metric to reward senior managers.


1. Manifest and MM&K. Total Remuneration Survey 2013.

2. BBC. Shareholders are now ‘much more sophisticated’. (accessed 10 June 2013).

The doctor/patient relationship: revolution or evolution

A few weeks ago, the theme of the British Medical Journal concerned the ‘patient revolution’, complete with a rather Stakhanovite image of empowerment on the front page. The so-called patient revolution was the main feature in the editor’s column, the first editorial1 and an article by Ray Moynihan2. Let me say at once that I am entirely signed up to doctrines of patient autonomy, patient-centred care and involving service users and citizens in the decision-making apparatus of healthcare. And yet, and yet – there was something rather censorious about these articles. The articles implied that doctors are a bunch of remote, self-serving, pompous, Lancelot Spratt-type characters. There was an insinuation that doctors habitually ride rough shod over patients’ sensitivities, that patients are not involved in decision-making, that doctors override patient autonomy and that the idea of involving the public in decision-making is totally novel. What nonsense! I was a member of the Maternity Services Liaison Committee in my days as a gynaecologist back in Leeds – some 25 years ago. And let me tell you, the members of the committee were no shrinking violets.

In my current role as a National Institute for Health Research Collaborations for Leadership in Applied Health Research and Care director, service users and members of the public interact with researchers and care providers at every stage of the process – from deciding on priorities, to advising on the design of new services. I am certainly not holding myself up as a paragon of virtue; heavy user consultation is a feature of the entire research landscape. Indeed, it is not just a feature but a requirement for access to National Institute for Health Research funding. Medical students have extensive education on communication with patients, and on medical ethics. Here in Birmingham we have a ‘mini medical school’ which is an educational resource for the general public, and in which I lead a discussion group on medical ethics. I believe I created the first medical ethics course at the University of Leeds, in collaboration with Jennifer Jackson, from the Department of Philosophy, and that was now 25 years ago.

Fiona Godlee tried to defend her war metaphors in the context of patient engagement/empowerment but I wasn’t convinced by the argument. A friend of mine recently started the process of converting to Judaism. I met her a few years later and asked her if she was now Jewish. She turned to me and said: “Richard, it is a journey, not an arrival.” In my opinion, that is a far more apt metaphor for the ongoing relationship between our caring profession and those for whom we care.

1. Godlee F. BMJ 2013;346:f3153
2. Moynihan R, BMJ 2013;346:f2789

The need to elide health services research across rich and poor countries

Readers will know that I often play with ideas in my posts. Views expressed here are not necessarily my final and resolute viewpoint and I value further dialogue. My idea this week, is that, increasingly, health services research in resource poor and economically developed countries should be more closely aligned.

On the most superficial level, the stark difference in diseases is no longer as evident as it was when I set out in my professional career, some three decades ago (OK then, four decades ago). In those days, heart attacks, high blood pressure and depression predominated in rich countries, while malaria, diarrhoea and tuberculosis were most important in poor countries. This has changed quite radically. For example, infant deaths have dropped around the world (exceeding the millennium goal in many countries)1, while resource poor populations are ravaged by diabetes, obesity, heart attacks and stroke. In the end, it was even easier to get on top of the HIV epidemic, than to halt the rising incidence of the chronic ‘degenerative’ diseases of middle and old age.

However, I think the differences go deeper than just a change in disease patterns. Thirty years ago, Stockholm would have been effectively all middle class, while Addis Ababa or Mumbai would be constituted of a minute elite astride a vast deprived population. Visits to these cities now show a rapidly changing kaleidoscope with pockets of deprivation in Stockholm and a burgeoning middle class over most of the poor countries of the world. Looking ahead, I discern that we are moving towards a new kind of stratification; one which is increasingly within, rather than between, countries. Dani Rodrik is fond of pointing out that a person is better off (materially at least) if they are a random member of the lowest 10 per cent by income of a typical rich country than the highest 10 per cent in a typical low income country. However, projections based on current economic growth rates will likely change this.

Perhaps there are even deeper changes going on than those concerning just wealth and disease, but affecting also educational attainment. Only in extremely poor countries (Afghanistan) or those where the sources are hopelessly inadequately divided (Equatorial Guinea), are the majority of people neither numerate or literate. Children in Nairobi’s Kabela slum can go to school. The exceptions are mostly countries that have suffered prolonged war, such as Democratic Republic of Congo or South Sudan. About five years ago I visited Gonda in northern Ethiopia to work for a week in the maternity department. I found I really had very little to teach the local doctors. With few exceptions, where they deviated from evidence-based guidelines, it was because they did not have the necessary drugs or equipment, not because they were ignorant of modern standards2. Collaborations across countries involve networks of intellectual equals.

Moreover, the research methodologies that one would want to use across different settings are not dependent to any significant degree from those that one would use in the West. In fact, the flow of knowledge is not necessarily one way. For example, most practical applications of the step wedge design of clinical study were carried out in Africa, but the method is now being increasingly used in rich country settings (including the National Institute for Health Research Collaborations for Leadership in Applied Health Research and Care for Birmingham and Black Country I direct here in the West Midlands of England). Of course, the topics studied might differ in the particular. In a resource-poor setting, one might study the use of cheap and widely available materials for hernia repair,3 or a birthing mat for use in childbirth,4 but the fundamental tools of evaluation would remain unchanged. In health economic analysis, one might wish to discount costs (or even benefits) at a higher rate to take account of rapid economic growth rates, but this is a detail, rather than a fundamental change in method. Moreover, many of the problems of health services research are the same. Thus, integration of care, and delivering care holistically (rather than in silos) is a pressing issue in both rich and poor countries,5 while ‘lean’ methods to streamline surgery developed in India could improve productivity in Birmingham, Alabama.

It seems to me that, far from it being desirable to partition health-related research between the developed and resource poor countries of the world, there is a great deal to be learned from studies which cross national borders. The obvious reason for this is that it allows the effect of context on interventions to be studied, and this in turn can help generate theory and hence new hypotheses to test.6 A corollary of this thinking is that funding mechanisms should be merged – I contend that there would be profit in merging funds across funding agencies, and incentivising international studies; Qatari National Foundation Grants make provision for 30 per cent of funds to be spent abroad. I hypothesise that this would have not only normative scientific value, but it would also be symbolically important, representing a more egalitarian collaboration across countries and would make reliance on formal codes of conduct, such as the Arusha Accord7, less relevant, since the provisions of the code would be inherent in the structure of the research.

1. Countdown to 2015. Maternal, Newborn & Child Survival. Accountability for Maternal, Newborn & Child Survival. The 2013 Update. World Health Organization: Geneva. 2013. Available at: [Accessed 2013 May 31].

2. Pitchforth E, Lilford RJ, Kebede Y, Asres G, Stanford C, Frost J. Assessing and understanding quality of care in a labour ward: a pilot study combining clinical and social science perspectives in Gondar, Ethiopia. Soc Sci Med. 2010;71(10):1739-1748.

3. Stephenson BM, Kingsnorth AN. Inguinal hernioplasty using mosquito net mesh in low income countries: an alternative and cost effective prosthesis. BMJ. 2011; 343: d7448.

4. Dhaka. Mat red. Medical technology need not be sophisticated to be effective. The Economist. 18 May 2013. Available at: [Accessed 2013 May 31].

5. Marquez PV et al. No more disease silos for sub-Saharan Africa. BMJ. 2012; 345: e5812.

6. Banerjee A, Duflo E. Poor Economics: A Radical Rethinking of the Way to Fight Global Poverty.  PublicAffairs: New York, NY. 2011.
7. Horton R. Offline: 107 602 707 791. Lancet. 2013; 381:278.