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Interview: Professor Gillian Leng CBE, RSM Dean of Education

Professor Gillian Leng has a long-standing relationship with the Royal Society of Medicine. Formerly Chief Executive at the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE), she has been an RSM member since 1999, and served as a Council Trustee from 2013 to 2020. In October 2022 she was appointed RSM Dean of Education. Here she talks about her role, how she is supporting learning at the RSM and some of the challenges facing the NHS.

What drew you to the RSM when you joined in 1999 and how has the organisation changed over the years?

At the time I joined I was working as a public health consultant at Bedfordshire Health Authority. The opportunity to get involved with like-minded people in the RSM’s Epidemiology & Public Health Section was my principal reason for joining.

Some things have stayed the same since then and this familiarity is one of the great things about the RSM. The sections are still working extremely hard, identifying topical areas of interest and holding informative meetings.

If you come into the RSM building and visit the library, you might think it hasn’t changed much since 1999. But although the physical space might be similar, there has been a huge change in the way information is provided and the way in which library services operate. It is now possible to access digital journals and e-books from anywhere in the country, or indeed anywhere in the world. People still visit the library and like the quiet workspace it provides, but the information they use is largely online. An important question for the RSM is to consider how the physical library should complement our digital library in the future.

Another huge change for the RSM over the past few years was the impact of the pandemic, catalysing a sudden move into a wholly virtual world. Staff and sections began working from home and virtual meetings and webinars became standard. There were drawbacks to this change, but also benefits - these new ways of interacting with the RSM helped us reach new audiences. We now need to work out the best balance of online and face-to-face meetings for the future, to optimise networking in the building and wider access through virtual media.

What is the responsibility of the RSM Dean of Education and, in a practical sense, what does that mean for RSM members?

There has been an RSM Dean of Education for many years, with broad responsibility at a high level for providing strategic leadership for the Society’s educational programmes. That means facilitating multidisciplinary work, using professional networks and working with and supporting our Director of Learning, Professor Mary Bishop. It’s an exciting time to be Dean since there are a lot of opportunities to collaborate on new programmes and initiatives.

There’s also a specific responsibility around continuing professional development (CPD) for events, making sure that this is allocated in a robust fashion.

How does your vision for the future of learning at the RSM build on the Society’s current five-year strategy?

Fundamentally, what I want to bring to the RSM, in addition to providing strategic leadership, is to ensure that the vision set out in the five-year strategy is informed and supported by high quality materials that allow us to deliver leading edge, independent, robust medical education.

With my background in the use of evidence and research, I’m very aware of conflicts of interest. There has been a lot of research and many papers written about the importance of avoiding conflicts of interest across the board, whether that's how you develop a guideline or write a systematic review or develop an educational module. The RSM needs to take an open approach to declaring interests in the future.

The NHS is facing significant challenges. Given your wide-ranging background, both as a clinician and through your executive positions in healthcare, could you share your views on what needs to be worked through before the NHS can evolve as a sustainable and workable model?

Some objective research around health care models could be a good place to start. We should look at other healthcare models around the world and assess whether the infrastructure that we have is going to work for the future of our own health system.

At a fundamental level, we have hospitals and we have community services. Hospital services have grown and developed in all sorts of ways, with massive infrastructure projects and the building of many new hospitals. It’s worth noting that we generally aren't hearing many complaints about the lack of the latest treatments, that cancer care is out of date or genetic testing isn’t available.   

Having come from NICE, I know the effort that's gone into making sure that we find a way of introducing cost effective new treatments and new diagnostic tests. We should remember the NHS has done really well at that.

But what I do hear, and what we all hear in the news, are problems about access, social care, capacity and lack of integration in community services.  Over the last few decades, we've added more and more things to the primary care service. We've put in preventive services, more immunisation, more health checks and it's now vastly different from the primary care that the NHS inherited back in 1948. 

We need to work through what the potential solutions might be by looking at national exemplars, reviewing international models and by planning ahead to ensure we have the right capacity for the future.

Our section volunteers are the lifeblood of the RSM’s education programme. How do you envisage working with the sections and what excites you most about their potential for generating new ideas and attracting new members to the Society?

The section volunteers are definitely the beating heart of the RSM. The energy and time they give so freely to the RSM can't be underestimated and neither can the networks of people that they bring and the great educational events they put on.

I’m currently meeting with all the section presidents to hear their views about any challenges they are facing, what they think is working well, and what they’d like from the RSM in terms of support.

There is a whole range of ideas coming back, from different ways of delivering and marketing events, to novel ways of holding hybrid events, and alternative funding and sponsorship models. I’m looking forward to bringing this work together and having a conversation about how we can incorporate some of these ideas and share learning across the sections through the Academic Board.

I have a virtual open door so I’m always happy to hear from members if they have ideas or suggestions for what I might do as RSM Dean. Do please get in touch.

Members can email Professor Leng at:

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