Intended for healthcare professionals

Education And Debate

Lessons from Whitehall

BMJ 1998; 317 doi: (Published 19 December 1998) Cite this as: BMJ 1998;317:1718
  1. Kenneth Calman, vice chancellor and warden
  1. University of Durham, Durham DH1 3HP

    I have been asked on several occasions recently if I have any advice for my successor. I find it difficult (and perhaps inappropriate) to give advice, and I would certainly not expect it to be taken. I have, however, learnt many lessons during the seven years I spent in Whitehall, and these might be worth sharing.

    Summary points

    • Some lessons were learnt by the former chief medical officer

    • Be true to yourself and your beliefs, act with integrity and honesty, and be pleasant

    • Develop people in their jobs, seek the views of the public, and develop trust

    • Look out for opportunities, but remember that change takes time

    • Invest in the necessary work and maintain a wide vision

    • Keep a sense of humour and fun, and be adventurous


    My purpose was, firstly, to argue (and sometimes to fight) for better health and health care in England, and, secondly, to ensure that professions, and in particular the medical profession, were both at the centre of the change process and up to the job. Such a vision cannot, and should not, be achieved alone; it requires the help of many colleagues in the colleges, the universities, the General Medical Council, the BMA, the wider medical profession, other professional groups, patients, and the public. Look how far we have come in seven years, though it has not been without its problems. The stories that could be told are many—of the battles fought, of the scars inflicted, and the achievements gained. Sometimes the job has felt lonely, often very exposed, but never without excitement and always great fun. It has been enormously enjoyable.

    Much of the task is about leadership. For me, this means showing the way and this sometimes requires taking a difficult path, or even a new road, if the prize is to be won, …

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