Intended for healthcare professionals

Observations BMJ Confidential

Donal O’Donoghue: Being a doctor is “a ball”

BMJ 2014; 349 doi: (Published 11 September 2014) Cite this as: BMJ 2014;349:g5497


Donal O’Donoghue, national director for kidney care from 2007 to 2013, is a professor of renal medicine in Salford. His years as “kidney tsar” broadened his appetite for improving health and social care, and he now helps to lead the ambitious Healthy Liverpool Programme. A report he coauthored earlier this year showed that at least 1000 patients a month, mainly vulnerable elderly people, died unnecessarily of acute kidney injury because of inadequate care in NHS hospitals—a conclusion he described as “a real opportunity for quality improvement.” He’s as passionate about Manchester United as he is about NHS care. O’Donoghue is 58.

What was your earliest ambition?

To be an architect.

Who has been your biggest inspiration?

My father: a teacher who went to the university of life, including being a prisoner of war, and who taught me that everyone is special and that we shouldn’t be afraid of failure.

What was the worst mistake in your career?

Karaoke singing on a ward night out—but thankfully it was before camera capability in mobile phones.

What was your best career move?

Spending a year in Paris as a Medical Research Council travelling fellow. It’s a beautiful city.

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

The best has to be Aneurin Bevan, who delivered Beveridge’s plan. In the modern era, Stephen Dorrell stands out. I worked directly with six—Reid to Hunt—of whom Alan Johnson best understood the role and Andrew Lansley tried to micromanage.

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

Marie, my wife: for support, insight, and encouragement in equal measure.

To whom would you most like to apologise?

Every person I have looked at and seen only a kidney.

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

Half to pay off the family mortgages, and half to the British Kidney Patient Association, which supports people and families affected by kidney disease.

Where are or were you happiest?

Slowly cycling the Grands Cols in France, with my sons ahead of me.

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

Digital healthcare—check out

Do you believe in doctor assisted suicide?

I believe that doctors have a fundamental role in alleviating suffering, challenging the futile escalation of care that elements of 21st century medicine have become, and supporting a gentle death.

What book should every doctor read?

Reckoning with Risk by Gerd Gigerenzer, to help improve their understanding and communication of risk.

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

Kathryn, my daughter, playing the flute; my grandsons, Patrick and Sam, reading Seamus Heaney’s Beowulf and WB Yeats’ The Lake Isle of Innisfree, respectively; and Eric Idle’s Always Look on the Bright Side of Life.

What is your guiltiest pleasure?

Roquefort cheese with Gevrey-Chambertin.

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

Walk alongside Daniel Kahneman, the behavioural economics Nobel Prize winner, and learn from his conversation.

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

Neither of those, but in July, the Tour de France—a monumental team sport.

What is your most treasured possession?

My mental health.

What personal ambition do you still have?

To see acute kidney injury widely recognised as the barometer of good basic clinical care that it is, in frail and vulnerable people.

Summarise your personality in three words

Optimistic, enthusiastic, resilient.

Where does alcohol fit into your life?

With good company and good food.

What is your pet hate?

The arrogance of silo working and the ignorance arising from tribalism in the medical profession.

What would be on the menu for your last supper?

Fish and chips with my sons, Daniel and James, before another successful Manchester United European final.

Do you have any regrets about becoming a doctor?

None; it’s a privilege and a ball.

If you were not in your present role what would you be doing instead?

An architect, designing systems with learning organisations.


Cite this as: BMJ 2014;349:g5497

Log in

Log in through your institution


* For online subscription