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NHS70: Q & A with Professor Steve Thornton

Professor Steve Thornton is Vice Principal (Health) at Barts and The London School of Medicine and Dentistry, Queen Mary University of London. In celebration of the NHS’s 70th birthday this week, Professor Thornton has taken part in a Q & A to explain how we work alongside the NHS and help support the organisation’s work through education and research.

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How do medical schools like ours influence healthcare?

We influence healthcare in many ways. One of the crucial roles we undertake is providing the skills and workforce for the NHS. In terms of education, we and the NHS help provide doctors, dentists and other healthcare professionals with the knowledge they need to provide high quality care.

We also undertake research in conjunction with the NHS, making advances in healthcare through innovation and discovery, and applying it to clinical situations so that we improve the health delivered in our partner organisations. Whilst working in partnership with the NHS, our work also goes well beyond that, making discoveries that influence healthcare worldwide.

How do you interact with the NHS in your role as Vice Principal (Health)?

My work and the work of our Executive Team involves a lot of interaction with colleagues in our partner NHS Trusts, and also at a higher level, working more broadly across government and policy.

I sit on the board of one of our key partners; Barts Health NHS Trust and I interact with the executive team there, as well as with other partner Trusts, including East London NHS Foundation Trust. We also work with GPs and teams in primary care and mental health.

I am also a doctor and an obstetrician, so I still regularly work in the NHS as an obstetrician.

Have there been any particular achievements in our work with the NHS that you’ve been particularly proud of?

The development of the Barts Heart Centre at St Bartholomew’s Hospital was a particularly successful joint academic-NHS venture and has the potential to save thousands of lives a year, so we’re immensely proud of that.

We’ve also been making huge differences in cancer care through our research, in both prevention and treatment.

We have recently made incredible progress in developing cures for a number of previously neglected health conditions. This includes work in revolutionising the treatment of Hepatitis C and pioneering a new type of gene therapy for patients with haemophilia.

Has your past experience of being a clinician in the NHS influenced how you carry out your current role as VP?

Having experience in the NHS makes a huge difference to understanding the organisation, the day-to-day pressures and the challenges of delivering clinical care. I also have first hand experience of seeing how NHS staff really care and work hard to help their patients.

What do you think makes the NHS special?

The NHS has made an incredible difference to patient care, and ensuring it is free at the point of delivery is so important. The NHS is owned by everyone, for everyone, and is just an amazing organisation which is the envy of the world.

Like any organisation, it faces challenges, so we will need to overcome those to ensure it continues to be as world-leading as it currently is.

How do you think the NHS will change in the future?

We have the ability to improve healthcare in so many ways. Healthcare data will revolutionise our understanding and treatment of disease, and precision medicine is a real opportunity for the future.

Using data, we can make advances in all areas of medicine, from heart disease to trauma. Having live data where we can see what is happening to patients in real-time, and acting on that will allow us to understand and treat patients in much better ways.

There are also many opportunities with the introduction of new technology into healthcare. The real challenge is making sure that when we introduce new technology, we do not end up depersonalising patient care, which at the moment is fantastic.

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