Professor Mary Dixon-Woods, RAND Professor of Health Services Research, talks about her career pathway so far, her focus on the science and ethics of making things better in healthcare organisation and delivery and her arrival at the Primary Care Unit.
What’s your career history so far?
I was very lucky to attend a very forward-thinking secondary school in the middle of Ireland: it was so far ahead of the game that it introduced computers to the curriculum in 1979, and it insisted that girls could do anything they put their minds to – at a time when many schools limited girls’ ambitions. I spent the year after I left school working as a library assistant in a very socially deprived area of Dublin. I learned a lot about what poverty looks like up close and personal, about how very vulnerable people are when they have no money and no opportunities, and about the value of public services. By the time I started my undergraduate degree, I was already very conscious of the privilege that education brings. I’ve been committed to inclusivity and encouragement of people in the early stages of their careers ever since.
I spent four years as a civil servant, working on energy policy, including safety and security of energy supply. That was another fantastic learning experience, stimulating my interest in the role of science in policy and the importance of being able to find the evidence, interpret it, communicate it to multiple audiences, and turn it into something actionable. Later, I worked for a year developing educational software, which was great fun and taught me a lot about how to structure and present complex information.
I did my postgraduate training (MSc in Social Research and Social Policy and DPhil in Social Studies) at Oxford, where I was very fortunate to meet people who inspired me to work in health.
I then moved to University of Leicester. Initially I was a lecturer in a mostly teaching role. I taught sociology to medical students for 20 years, which, after I worked out how to do it in a way that was engaging and meaningful for them, I really enjoyed. Many of those students are now consultants and when I meet them they tell me that all that material on organisation and delivery of healthcare has remained extremely valuable.
For the last decade I’ve been leading a big programme of research focused on patient safety and quality of care, as well as on methodological innovation – for instance, how to incorporate diverse forms of evidence in systematic reviews – and on regulation and governance of care and research.
I’m very much looking forward to my new post as RAND Professor of Health Services Research in the Centre for Health Services Research at University of Cambridge. It’s a tremendous honour and responsibility to be taking over a role in which Professor Martin Roland shone so brightly. He has done a magnificent job in establishing Cambridge as a centre for excellence in health services research, so I really want to safeguard that legacy.
Many of the problems faced by the NHS are common to health systems worldwide, and the NHS offers unique strengths that could be levered more effectively to benefit patients and staff. Part of my job is figuring out how to do that
What’s the key question you’re addressing?
I’m looking at the science and ethics of making things better in healthcare organisation and delivery. Much of this work is funded by a Wellcome Trust Senior Investigator Award, which has been completely game-changing. It’s offered agility in being able to pursue lines of inquiry as they become policy issues and to make impacts far closer to real-time. It also allowed me to spend a year at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire, where I learned a great deal and was able to form collaborators and friends across the US. I came to realise that many of the problems faced by the NHS are common to health systems worldwide, and that the NHS offers unique strengths that could be levered more effectively to benefit patients and staff. Part of my job is figuring out how to do that.
The areas we’re working on at present include, among others: maternity safety, evaluation of methods adapted from high-risk industries for improving safety in healthcare, infection prevention and control, patient safety in the home, response to serious incidents, healthcare learning systems, measurement of quality and safety, and employee voice in relation to safety concerns.
How will your new position help you to take forward work on this question?
My new position will mean I’ll be able to create new partnerships – not just with excellent colleagues across the University and RAND, but also with patients and the public and with NHS organisations and staff and beyond. It’s hugely exciting to have the opportunity to answer new kinds of questions and to do so in especially creative and novel ways. The key thing for me is that anything we work on has to have the potential for benefit to patients and for improving health systems.
What will you prioritise in your first few months here?
For the first few months, I’ll be focusing on meeting people and doing a lot of listening. I want to learn as much as possible about the work that’s going on and about individuals’ expertise and interests. I always like to work with the strengths of a group and love putting new collaborations together. I’m already working on several grant applications with Cambridge colleagues, and with any luck some of those will be successful. I’m also aiming to complete some writing already underway.
Anything else you’d like to share about coming to join the Primary Care Unit at Cambridge?
Everyone so far has been delightfully welcoming and helpful. I can’t wait to get stuck in!