By Olivia Gordon
Oxford's Women of Achievement lecture series welcomed Chief Medical Officer for England, Dame Sally Davies as its inaugural speaker this week. Vice-Chancellor Professor Louise Richardson explained in her introduction that the lectures' purpose is ‘to motivate women to aim as high as they can – we’ve come a long way, but there’s still a lot of work to be done’. Introducing Dame Sally, the Vice-Chancellor reflected: ‘I can think of few women who have achieved so much.’
A haematologist, Professor Davies developed the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR), chairs the UK Clinical Research Collaboration, and is a member of the World Health Organization Global Advisory Committee on Health Researcg. She holds 24 honorary degrees and the BBC has named her the sixth most powerful woman in England.
Dame Sally’s speech was in itself a lesson in how to be a confident 'woman of achievement'. Dry and irreverent, brisk and breezy in a wonderfully English way, she recounted how she fought every step of the way to build her stellar career.
In 1985 she was a district hospital consultant with a special interest in sickle cell disease. She worked to set up the first regional screening of neonates for the disease, and by 2004 she was Director General of Research and Development in the NHS. Convinced that the Government needed to commit to research in the NHS ‘to increase health and wealth’, she set up the NIHR health research system ten years ago, including professorships which allow young scientists to get out of ‘boring work’ and focus on their careers. In 2010 she became the first ever female Chief Medical Officer – a decision she aptly illustrated in her lecture by placing a colour photograph of herself over a slide montage of back and white photos of male previous incumbents.
Throughout this journey, Davies has followed the motto ‘If you believe it, you can do it’. Moreover, she explained, she ‘had to be resilient, which is important for leadership, and stay true to my principles’. When, early in her career, she wanted time out to train in emotional intelligence and leadership in India, she told her boss that she would leave if it wasn’t funded, and that the expensive high-level training should be paid for ‘because I only do the best’.
Later, she clashed with ‘the rules’ which dictated that she wasn’t allowed to talk to the treasury. Davies, no shrinking violet, stuck to her guns and knew she was right in replacing ‘tea and biccie sessions’ with clinical research networks. ‘I’m trying to get the right answer for the nation,’ Davies recalled insisting at the time, despite much opposition from hospital chief executives. Soon, Gordon Brown was eating out of her hand. Today she laughs, ‘rules are there to be…noted’ - and the treasury reports to her.
Dame Sally went on to discuss the next wave of healthcare which she believes will see us moving away from ‘individualism’ (the current culture which fosters ‘disbelievers’ who refuse to vaccinate their children) towards a culture of ‘public health as a shared responsibility’. ‘We’ve done it with seatbelts and smoking in public places,’ said Dame Sally, ‘now we need to make it a social norm for employers to provide a good health environment.’
Anti Microbial Resistance (AMR) – also known as drug-resistant infections - is one of the biggest current examples of the need for collective responsibility. While working on an annual report on infections a few years ago, she was told by scientists that AMR was a huge problem. She has put the issue on the government’s risk register, meaning it had to be taken seriously in all policy decisions.
Germs, which Davies head-mistressishly described as ‘nasty little sausages’, are increasingly resistant to our overprescribed arsenal of antibiotics. Because ‘antibiotics underpin modern medicine,’ said Davies, ‘modern medicine will really be at an end’ soon. There are very few new antibiotics in the pipeline – no new class of antibiotics has been discovered since 1987 and we have stopped investing in new ones. ‘It’s pretty appalling and we should have seen this coming,’ said Davies. She gave an example: ‘There’s an outbreak of gonorrhea in Leeds that worries me stiff – it’s on the rise and we have some cases that are untreatable.’
Davies noticed that another major global problem, climate change, only started to be taken seriously when its economic impact was noticed – and said she thinks similar financial forecasts might help the world take action on antibiotic overuse – especially in fish and animal farming – before it’s too late. Possible solutions she has been encouraging include vaccinating farmed fish instead of flooding their water with antibiotics, vaccinating patients pre-operatively against possible post-operative infections, and the development of rapid diagnostic tests, and she plans to spend most of 2016 travelling the world trying to raise awareness.
Professor Sally Mapstone, Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Education, who organises the Women of Achievement lectures, thanked Dame Sally for her ‘frank, exhilarating’ talk. In the questions afterwards, Dame Sally was asked how she would define achievement. ‘Whether I made a difference,’ she reflected. If anyone can make a difference, it will be the determined Dame Sally.
Images © John Cairns