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Dorothy Keefe

Clinical ambassador, Transforming Health, South Australia, Professor of cancer medicine, University of Adelaide

Dorothy Keefe recently completed the MSc in Medical Leadership, a part-time programme taught at the RCP in London, and jointly delivered by the RCP and Birkbeck, University of London.

I would highly recommend the MSc in Medical Leadership to any doctor who aspires to a career in leadership. During training, clinicians learn how to care for patients, and a bit about how to lead a team of doctors, but we don’t routinely learn about organisations or finance.

In the modern medical world it is not enough to be a competent practitioner. We need, as public servants, to take responsibility for using public money wisely. The so-called ‘Triple Aim’ of healthcare reform is to deliver improved patient experience, improved population outcomes, and improved cost-efficiency. If you cannot speak the language of the systems administrators and accountants, you cannot properly engage in improvement.

The student experience was excellent. I was an overseas student (from Australia) so spent a week in London every few months. The venue at the RCP has everything you need for the course. The staff were very efficient and supportive. The lecturers were engaging, knowledgeable and helpful. The group was small enough to manage, and the food was truly wonderful!

For me, the most valuable part of the course was the ability to spend 3 days just focusing on it. The workshop format was very informal and gave a great deal of time for thinking and trying out ideas with the other students. Learning the language of organisational psychology was invaluable. Every time I returned to work after a module, I was immediately able to put my learning into practice – and my influence within my workplace was enhanced. I also enjoyed learning how to write an essay (after a 30-year gap) and the discipline of having to put my ideas and learning down on paper in a structured manner.

I think the course led directly to my being recruited for a new leadership position. At the start I was the director of the South Australian Cancer Service, and after the first 2 years I was recruited to be the clinical ambassador (leader) of our health reform. This has become one of the top medical positions in the state. I would not have been able to do this job properly if I had not done the MSc. Before the course I would have been reluctant to step outside the cancer field, but now the whole of healthcare is my area.

I have put the theory into practice every day since the very first module. I am now able to look at systems and behaviour as well as medical issues in a competent manner. It has changed my career forever because I find the organisational side so fascinating. I see the rest of my career in medical and healthcare leadership.

Working with my peers on the course was extremely beneficial. Personally, I reconnected with what was happening in the NHS, having been away from it for years. Most of the other students were from the NHS, and clearly younger than me. I am sure we all took different things from the course, but at every level there were things to learn that would be really useful. Indeed, I think the course may have been even more useful for me than for some of the very junior doctors. The group got smaller as the years passed, but the bonds grew stronger, and new friendships were made. We became a tight-knit group.

I would highly recommend this course to my colleagues. I started it because I felt I needed some scaffolding for my leadership experience. It certainly gave me that, plus much more. Lifelong learning is such a beneficial thing – and while we are all born with a degree of leadership ability, it is worth nurturing and improving it constantly. Healthcare works best when it is clinically led, but it has to be led by competent clinicians who understand how organisations work, and who can put population healthcare ahead of personal fiefdoms.

Final thoughts: like any course of study, it is not for the faint-hearted. It is quite hard work having to research and write an essay for every module,  but it is worth it, and there is a sense of real achievement as each one is submitted and marked (once I had mastered the structure, my marks improved significantly).

The master’s thesis year is the biggest challenge because more self-direction is required. It is vital to get the topic and question resolved as early as possible so that you can be matched to the right supervisor, and so that the thesis you are planning can actually be delivered.