Intended for healthcare professionals

Feature Interview

Harry Burns: the man who shifted Scotland’s thinking on health

BMJ 2014; 348 doi: (Published 21 March 2014) Cite this as: BMJ 2014;348:g2262
  1. Bryan Christie, freelance journalist
  1. 1Edinburgh, UK
  1. bryan.christie{at}

Harry Burns, Scotland’s outgoing chief medical officer, tells Bryan Christie that social disintegration is at the root of ill health

The same techniques that led the Great Britain cycling squad to success at the 2012 Olympic Games are being applied to health improvement in Scotland. They are based on the idea that small gains across a range of interventions can add up to significant overall improvement.

The idea has worked in patient safety, which has seen a 12% fall in mortality in Scottish hospitals since 2007.1 It is now being applied to population health for the first time in a move that is attracting international interest.

The man at the centre of these developments is Scotland’s chief medical officer, Harry Burns, who is standing down at the end of March after eight years in the post. He says that one of his key contributions has been to create a new understanding around health improvement.

“I think I’ve helped Scotland to conceptualise health improvement differently. It’s not something you do to people; it’s something you do with people. We have got to quite an interesting place in terms of a positive view of wellbeing rather than a negative view of illness. The notion …

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