Students in Years 10 and 12 who are interested in following a medical career were enthralled to listen to talk by Professor Dame Sally Davies, Chief Medical Officer of Great Britain on Tuesday.

There have been sixteen Chief Medical Officers since the role was created 168 years ago and Dame Sally is proud to be the first woman to be appointed to the post.  She is a-political; a Civil Servant, and her job is to keep an eye on public health in the UK, providing independent advice to the Government. She regularly meets Ministers, including the Prime Minister, to brief them on issues affecting the nation’s health.  She described her position as one of influence as opposed to power and said her private discussions with ministers behind closed doors, helped ‘shake the trees’ in formulating policy.

Born and bred in Birmingham, Dame Sally, unlike her other family members, was not academically gifted. At school she struggled with dates and numbers and was ‘hopeless’ at history and geography. She failed the 11+ but learnt to overcome her learning difficulties and emphasised to students that it wasn’t necessary to be good at everything.  Dame Sally loved Science, Biology in particular and also loves people, so a career in the health service was an ideal combination for her.

Dame Sally described her career progression: doctor,  researcher specialising in sickle cell disease, chairing committees, being responsible for overseeing £12m research and development budgets.  She told students how she based her career on being ‘seriously competent’ and worked her way up by being efficient. She told students that ‘jobs are what you make of them’ and advised them to always try to make space within their roles to take on other things, as she had done.

Throughout her career Dame Sally has remained true to her values; she described herself as honest, straightforward and strong.  She will always tell the truth and all her advice and recommendations are evidence based.

She is passionate about the issue of Antimicrobial Resistance (AMR) and travels the globe attending conferences of medical professionals, drug companies, investors and healthcare service providers.  Bill Gates is one of the many influential people she has met who she described as ‘scary, never forgetting any facts.’

Dame Sally’s talk was highly engaging and her pride and passion for her role was obvious to students.  They had many questions:

How can an NHS career be made more attractive to young people?

Dame Sally said that in her own experience working in the NHS has always been tough but felt that over time, media portrayal has contributed to make it seem less attractive.  She said it offered a wonderful career and all roles within the NHS were important: porters, receptionists, nurses, doctors.  The best thing about an NHS career is that you can see the good you are doing.

Does the British Medical Association have any affect on your role?

It did not have any impact on her role but it was an excellent trade union. In her opinion it needed to make better use of digital technology to modernise its practises.

What are your views on Junior Doctor contracts?

Dame Sally recalled when she worked as a junior doctor and had one evening off in three months!  Junior Doctors now worked shorter hours but much more intensively and more could be done to help them.

How will Brexit affect medical supplies?

Dame Sally explained how the movement of drugs will be affected and how a hard Brexit may affect investment in UK drug factories.

What are your views on private healthcare?

Dame Sally said that she had no objection to private companies delivering healthcare services but stressed her belief that healthcare must be free at the point of access and when people are really sick, the NHS provides the best service.

What’s the biggest health challenge currently facing the country?

Without hesitation Dame Sally said ‘obesity’ and that ‘exercise is the magic pill’. There are no silver bullets.  Being obese is not the fault of any individual or family.  The facts are that people face daily temptations – sugary drinks, coffee shops selling milky drinks, syrups, cakes, sandwiches, supermarket offers on high fat/sugary foods.  Collectively, industry and Governments must make it easier for people to make healthy choices.

She described how she had recently visited Nestle’s Research and Development laboratory where they have developed new sugar molecules with half the number of calories.  She then tasted chocolate bars made with the sugar molecules and the difference was hardly noticeable.  The sugar tax has already taken 45,000kilos of sugar out of the country and there is evidence that people are buying less sugary drinks as a result.

Another student asked about smoking and alcohol.  Dame Sally said that there was a downward trend in the number of young people smoking and cautioned against vaping as, although it was ‘safer than smoking’ the long term side effects were unknown.  Alcohol consumption remained a concern as evidence proved that cheap cider and spirits caused obesity and liver damage, this has particularly increased in young women.

Finally, Dame Sally was asked if she had experienced prejudice as a woman in her career. Dame Sally said that she had experienced occasions when her views were overlooked or attributed to a male counterpart and she always tried to ensure that this never happened whenever she attended or chaired meetings.  

Dame Sally encouraged students to express their views and not be overlooked; to learn from experience and always try to have fun in whatever job they do.  The students were clearly enthused and inspired by her talk, giving her a long round of applause as she left to attend another engagement in the City.