Mary Seacole

Baby boomer meets digital natives

The organisers @DanielOyayoyi and @RebsCullen and me

On Friday I spent a morning in Leeds with 100 trainees from the 2015 and 2016 intakes of the NHS Graduate Scheme. They had arranged a conference about digital media #NHSGetSocial. Thank you  @DanielOyayoyi and @RebsCullen for inviting me to talk about raising awareness via social media. That I, an ageing Baby Boomer, should address a group of Digital Natives on this subject felt hilarious. As so often these days, I gained much more than I gave.

En route to the event I did a bit of crowd sourcing via Twitter to help illustrate my session. This was the first response:

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The audience seemed to agree. They could think of examples of leaders who seemed uncomfortable with social media using it poorly, mainly to broadcast rather than interact.

There were also differences between how those with extrovert and those with introvert personality preferences interact with social media. Some had very sensible anxieties about tweeting first and regretting later. And others were honest about how hard they found it to decide what, if anything, to say via social media.

So I shared my social media tips:

  1. Do it yourself.
  2. Don’t rise to the bait or tweet when angry or under the influence of dis-inhibitors.
  3. Share opinions but remember they are only your opinions. Others may disagree.
  4. Where possible, stick to facts and values.
  5. Don’t believe everything you read.
  6. There ARE trolls out there. But not as many as you might be led to believe.
  7. Be kind, always – to yourself and to others.

And I shared some of the responses I had received that morning, including these from @nedwards1, @forwardnotback and @anniecoops

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The audience also seemed to agree with the Twitter response to my second question. We talked about the Daily Mail and other media that love to name, blame and shame politicians and those who work in public services but seem much less keen to call out wealthy tax avoiders or those who “create value” by paying minimum wages and offer zero hours contracts. And how even when they get things wrong they rarely apologise.

We talked about agent provocateurs and others who make things up and then either delete them or simply deny they have said it, even when there is photographic evidence to the contrary. The conspiracy theorists who lap this stuff up. And the anonymous characters who lurk on comments pages and bang on about no smoke without fire.

And we talked of the damage this all does to those who dedicate their lives to working in public life, but also how clinicians and managers can work together to call this dishonesty out, live by their values and counteract the post-fact world poison.

My other three questions were about patients and a paperless NHS.

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Again, although hardly a representative sample, my Twitter replies accorded with the audience. They said that attitudes mattered as much if not more than IT. I told them the story of a medical colleague who would write to me every six months or so during my 13 years as an NHS CE listing everything that he felt was wrong with how I was leading the trust, including the inadequacy of his secretarial support, in a 3 -4 page letter typed, somewhat ironically, by his secretary. I would always reply, by email. By contrast, my own psychiatrist, a world renowned professor at another trust, personally typed his update letter to my GP during our consultation and gave it to me to pass on. He would have used email but it wasn’t yet sufficiently secure.

We also discussed the pros and cons of clinical staff spending increasing amounts of time away from patients collecting and recording data that someone somewhere thought might be useful. And that the gold standard of a fully connected wireless NHS when patients and staff  freely shared information via iPad or other tablet device would happen one day. But that given the current state of connectivity, they probably shouldn’t cancel the contract for supplying paper and pens anytime soon.

Finally, I shoehorned in a reference to my muse Mary Seacole. I said that she, a 19th century health care entrepreneur, would have loved social media. And I gave Daniel and @HPottinger, in the picture below, my last two Mary Seacole enamel badges.


At the end I said that I would be writing a blog about the day. And I really hope some of them read it. Because those 100 young people made me think. Despite the financial challenges, morale problems, almost infinite demands plus the debilitating impact of our post-fact world, I think the NHS may be OK.

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And you know why I think that? Because these young leaders, and thousands of other clinicians and managers like them, will make it so. With shining integrity, stunning academic AND emotional intellect, insatiable appetite for understanding, capacity for working smart as well as hard, courage to speak truth to power, and wisdom far beyond their years, they will do it. They will help our creaking NHS adapt for the new era. Whilst holding hard to our core values of high quality, safe care for all, regardless of ability to pay.

And as one who is likely to need a lot more from the NHS in the future, that makes me very happy.

What would Mary Seacole do?

Professor Elizabeth Anionwu and me

Professor Elizabeth Anionwu and me

On difficult days, I ask myself what Mary Seacole would do.

Those who seek to denigrate her memory are more than mean – spirited. They not only question her nursing contribution in the Crimea –  for which she was honoured by the British Army, the Times newspaper, Her Majesty Queen Victoria and 80,000 members of the public who attended celebrations in her honour. They also question whether she actually was a nurse. They say that she wasn’t really black. And having campaigned as hard as they could to undermine the Mary Seacole Memorial Statue Appeal, they now say that it is OK for there to be a statue to commemorate her, as long as it is small and not in a prominent position.

I will not stoop to naming these people nor to referencing the nastiness they have whipped up. Articles in The Independent and The Guardian have helped set the record straight. And today my dear friend Professor Elizabeth Anionwu CBE, Vice Chair of the Mary Seacole Statue Appeal, pictured with me above, will be on Woman’s Hour talking to Jenni Murray about the importance of Mary’s memory to all who believe in equality.

And today is the day that Mary’s beautiful statue, created by renowned sculptor Martin Jennings, will be unveiled outside St Thomas’ Hospital in London. Mary will proudly face the Houses of Parliament across the river. And she will be the first statue to a named black woman in the whole UK.

This is what will be written underneath:

“I trust that England will not forget one who nursed the sick, who sought out her wounded to aid and succour them, and who performed last offices for some of her illustrious dead.”

Sir William Howard Russell, War Correspondent, the Times Newspaper, 1857

We need Mary’s legacy now more than ever. The referendum campaign has unleashed xenophobia and racism. The poster of people with dark skin queuing for refuge with that hateful slogan underneath said it all. Some hoped such ugly days were over. Many knew this was not so. Fear and hatred for “the other” lie behind words such as “I’m not a racist but….”.

The NHS is not immune to racism. Or sexism. I have nothing against able and honourable white men. But when the NHS workforce is 70% female and 20% BME, why does the top look so male and so white?  This excoriating report by Yvonne Coghill and Roger Kline tells us a lot. About unfairness and disadvantage and about how NHS staff who experience these things can lose hope. It was published earlier this month. It is in danger of sinking without trace unless we do something different now.

I have no personal experience of racism, although I have seen it in action. Sometimes I have done something about it. And sometimes I have not. For this I am ashamed.

I do have experience of anti-Semitism, of being teased for having a “funny” surname, and of sexism. I know about the stigma of mental illness. And I know that, had I stayed where I started, at a London teaching hospital, I would not have become an NHS chief executive. My face would not have fitted.

It was for these reasons that I, a white woman, felt I had something to contribute to the Mary Seacole Statue Appeal.

Trevor Sterling, new charity chair, Leon Mann, ambassador and me last year at the site where Mary's statue will be unveiled tomorrow morning

Trevor Sterling, new charity chair, Leon Mann, ambassador and me last year at the site of the statue

And now, trustees of our new charity, the Mary Seacole Trust, chaired by the brilliant lawyer Trevor Sterling, will be calling on Mary’s legacy to inspire those at risk of disadvantage. In schools, universities, communities and workplaces including the NHS. We will encourage people to work hard and do their best. To be compassionate AND entrepreneurial. To aspire to great things. To speak up for what is right. And never to give up.

Despite not bring born in the UK, Mary Seacole never gave up playing her part in helping those from a country she loved. Throughout her life she remained proud of her dark skin and her heritage.

I urge anyone in despair or need of inspiration to visit Mary’s statue. It depicts her coat furling around her as she strides defiantly into the wind to meet her destiny.

These are very difficult times. Let us join Mary Seacole. And let us never give up.

An earlier version of this article was published in the Health Service Journal. I have updated it for my blog and to increase access beyond the NHS. I will update it again with photographs of the statue.