Observations BMJ Confidential

Neena Modi: Dogged, determined, driven

BMJ 2016; 353 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.i2033 (Published 13 April 2016) Cite this as: BMJ 2016;353:i2033


Neena Modi is professor of neonatal medicine at Imperial College London and president of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health. She qualified in Edinburgh and trained in London and Liverpool. She has campaigned for greater investment in research into childhood health, and the college recently announced a plan to raise £10m to train a new generation of child health research leaders. A failure to tackle children’s poor start in life is not only unfair to them, Modi argues: it has implications for adult health and longevity. She chaired The BMJ’s ethics committee from 2009 to 2015.

What was your earliest ambition?

I spent part of my childhood in India in an era when women always took second place, so my earliest ambition was to be better than the boys (and I was).

Who has been your biggest inspiration?

A raft of fictional heroines feature large, but I also admired Margaret Thatcher, though I detested her politics; Hillary Clinton, obviously, for her amazing resilience; similarly, Aung Sang Suu Kyi and Nelson Mandela, for immense personal sacrifice and for showing, like Gandhi, how wars can be fought without violence. And, of course, my dad, who did his best to break away from the conventions expected of an Indian man.

What was the worst mistake in your career?

It may have been prudent, but I regret not having taken on a certain head of department.

What was your best career move?

Abandoning my new husband (briefly) and moving to London in 1982 to work with Osmund Reynolds and Jonathan Shaw in the wonderful neonatal unit at University College Hospital, where history was being made in care for newborns. To be part of the birth of neonatology, a new medical specialty, was the most exciting and invigorating experience. I would urge all young medics to find an area of practice that really inspires them: no matter what vicissitudes befall, they will never regret this.

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

Though not in my lifetime, Bevan was the best: a great politician who, with a simple, clear vision, ended the injustice of healthcare for only those who could pay and turned it into freedom from fear of injury and ill health for everyone. Alas, the worst was Lansley, who, though not alone in this, brought wholly unwarranted destruction to a great NHS, the extent of which has yet to be fully realised.

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

My mum, for always being there.

To whom would you most like to apologise?

My children, for not being a better mother.

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

I’d develop state of the art technology for my team’s national neonatal research database (www.imperial.ac.uk/ndau) so that parents, clinicians, researchers, and policy makers could access outputs interactively. We could also harness the full potential of big data for babies in myriad other ways, to improve their healthcare and health services.

Where are or were you happiest?

The moment when my daughter was born (after a rather painful labour) and I looked at her in complete amazement and thought, “She’s so beautiful, and she’s all mine.”

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

The slow realisation by society, the profession, and ethicists that clinical research involving infants and children isn’t unethical, it’s essential. There’s a lot of catching up to do: it’s still not sufficiently appreciated that every treatment administered, and every policy decision, requires continuous evaluation if healthcare is to move forward incrementally. This means integrating clinical care and objective assessments of efficacy and effectiveness in a new paradigm for healthcare research.

Do you support doctor assisted suicide?

I support doctor assisted end of life care.

What book should every doctor read?

NHS plc by Allyson Pollock.

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

I’d like “What happened next?” written on my headstone, as I’m very, very, curious about what will happen in the future, and alas I shall never know.

What is your guiltiest pleasure?

Owning a small, fast, wholly impractical, convertible red roadster.

What television programmes do you like?

Sci-fi always, and historical and political dramas.

What is your most treasured possession?

Our family photograph albums.

What, if anything, are you doing to reduce your carbon footprint?

I’m a purposeful recycler (I hope that it makes a difference).

What personal ambition do you still have?

To learn Italian.

Summarise your personality in three words

Dogged, determined, driven.

Where does alcohol fit into your life?

Happily, as I’m married to a genuine wine connoisseur and so have a personal tutor by my side.

What is your pet hate?

Wasting or throwing away good food.

What would be on the menu for your last supper?

Heavens, I wouldn’t be eating!

Do you have any regrets about becoming a doctor and academic?

Not a single one.

If you weren’t in your present position what would you be doing instead?


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