Alistair Burns: Slippery when wet

BMJ 2014; 348 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.g3202 (Published 15 May 2014) Cite this as: BMJ 2014;348:g3202

In the latest in its series asking the movers and shakers of the medical world about work, life, and less serious matters, The BMJ spoke to the psychiatry professor and supporter of dementia care


Alistair Burns, 55, is professor of old age psychiatry at the University of Manchester and national clinical director for dementia at NHS England. The profile of dementia is such that he has to navigate the interests of the prime minister, the health secretary, professional colleagues, and the many health and care organisations involved with dementia. He balances issues such as the prescription of antipsychotics, improving general hospital care, the need for timely diagnosis, and the question of screening or case finding. He must have scored some success, as nobody doubts his genuine commitment to better dementia care. He recently re-tweeted a picture of himself being kissed (in front of an audience of 150) by an attractive younger woman who had pledged to become a Dementia Friend.

What was your earliest ambition?

To be served in an over 18 pub when I was 16.

Who has been your biggest inspiration?

Robert Boyd (my first dean in Manchester) for leadership; David Jolley (senior consultant colleague in Manchester) for industry; and Tony David (psychiatrist at the Maudsley Hospital, best friend, and best man) for integrity.

What was the worst mistake in your career?

Seeing a bright red bloodstained fluid clot on draining a pleural effusion and realising it was probably from the aorta, or at least a major artery. I spent a harrowing few hours hanging around the patient waiting for something to happen, but everything was all right in the end.

What was your best career move?

They’ve all been rewarding, and it’s hard to pick one out. Moving to and from the Maudsley were the two best.

Bevan or Lansley? Who has been the best and the worst health secretary in your lifetime?

Jeremy Hunt is the best—he’s incredibly supportive of the work we are doing in dementia and has an energy, enthusiasm, and emotional intelligence that is infectious. I have not met the worst.

Who is the person you would most like to thank and why?

Personally: my family. Professionally: Raymond Levy (professor of old age psychiatry at the Maudsley) for my first break; David Goldberg (professor of psychiatry in Manchester when I arrived) for my second; and David Behan (director general at the Department of Health, now at the Care Quality Commission) for my third.

To whom would you most like to apologise?

The patient whose aorta I tapped.

If you were given £1m what would you spend it on?

I would pay off the family mortgages and go out for a curry.

Where are or were you happiest?

“Most happy” is a trait rather than a state marker for me. But most content—as a young surgical house officer in Dumfries, without a care in the world.

What single unheralded change has made the most difference in your field in your lifetime?

The availability of treatments for Alzheimer’s disease. That, and the mobile phone.

Do you believe in doctor assisted suicide?


What book should every doctor read?

The Nazi Doctors: Medical Killing and the Psychology of Genocide by Robert Jay Lifton.

What poem, song, or passage of prose would you like mourners at your funeral to hear?

Always Look on the Bright Side of Life by Eric Idle, from Monty Python’s Life of Brian. One of the few times I have laughed so much it hurt.

What is your guiltiest pleasure?

Gently pressing the accelerator of my Bentley to 120 mph (NB I’ve never done this on a public road).

If you could be invisible for a day what would you do?

Listen to what people said about me and try to work out if I was very clever or very stupid (I keep on wondering this myself). As Robert Burns said, “O, wad some Power the giftie gie us, To see oursels as others see us.”

Clarkson or Clark? Would you rather watch Top Gear or Civilisation? What TV programmes do you enjoy?

Clarkson, for sure. Making people smile is important—presumably a defence from my bullied schooldays.

What is your most treasured possession?

My family.

What personal ambition do you still have?

To retire before being reported to the General Medical Council, and to have a full page obituary in The BMJ.

Summarise your personality in three words

I could not choose between “batteries not included,” “subject to availability,” and “slippery when wet.”

Where does alcohol fit into your life?


What is your pet hate?

People who take themselves, and BMJ Confidential, too seriously.

What would be on the menu for your last supper?

Onion bhaji, chicken tikka masala, pilau rice, naan bread, lashings of lager.

Do you have any regrets about becoming a doctor?

None whatsoever. I’m fortunate, in that work is one of my hobbies.

If you weren’t a doctor what would you be doing instead?

Probably a lawyer—I remember filling in the form for Glasgow University (for personal reasons I had to stay at home), and the pen was poised over “Law” and “Medicine.” It landed almost randomly on Medicine.


Cite this as: BMJ 2014;348:g3202

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