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Observations BMJ Confidential

Simon Denegri: Piloting patient involvement

BMJ 2018; 360 doi: (Published 10 January 2018) Cite this as: BMJ 2018;360:j5782


Simon Denegri, 50, is national director for patients and the public in research at the National Institute for Health Research. He has also chaired an advisory group, INVOLVE, which aims to promote and support patients’ involvement in research. A graduate in politics and legislative studies from Hull University, Denegri has worked in the charitable, medical, and private sectors, including senior jobs at the Association of Medical Research Charities, the Royal College of Physicians, the Alzheimer’s Society, and Procter & Gamble. He tweets, blogs, writes poetry, and supports Crystal Palace FC, though not all at the same time.

What was your earliest ambition?

To be a pilot. I love flying.

What was your best career move?

More than one: joining the Alzheimer’s Disease Society in 1992, when it was at its pioneering best under Harry Cayton; becoming chief executive at the Association of Medical Research Charities in 2006; and being appointed chair of INVOLVE and national director (for patients and the public in research) in 2012.

What was the worst mistake in your career?

At Procter & Gamble I worked on a media story that was quite damaging for the company. I could’ve handled it a lot better. I was grateful to the organisation for not making me a scapegoat. It taught me a lesson that’s often talked about but rarely demonstrated: organisations confident in themselves forgive staff and encourage them to learn from failure.

How is your work-life balance?

It’s a work in progress and not as bad as it was.

How do you keep fit and healthy?

I recently turned 50, so these things feel like matters of urgency. I try to walk everywhere I can (our dog, Hamish, is wagging his tail at that remark), get a good night’s sleep, and eat well. I’ve really had to think about this and my mental wellbeing in recent years.

What single change would you like to see made to the NHS?

I’d like to see patients and carers involved in recruiting, interviewing, training, and appraising all NHS staff—managers, clinicians, and health professionals.

What do you wish that you had known when you were younger?

That those who bullied me at school were wrong.

Do doctors get paid enough?

Good doctors are worth every penny, but I’m not sure that it’s doctors’ pay we need to worry about when compared with other NHS staff.

To whom would you most like to apologise?

I’d rather apologise in person if and when I see them again, but unfortunately I doubt that I will.

What do you usually wear to work?

A suit with no tie.

Which living doctor do you most admire, and why?

I’ve been fortunate to work with many senior doctors over the years, and I’ve been inspired, perhaps unsurprisingly, by those who have actively set out to involve patients and the public in their decision making as leaders: Carol Black and Sally Davies would be top of my list in that regard. It’s encouraging to see so many colleagues in different stages of their careers in all health professions now showing the same leadership. We need this at every level.

What is the worst job you have done?

Washing dishes in a pub when I was 16.

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

In public involvement in research, INVOLVE. Set up in 1996, it’s been funded by the National Institute for Health Research since 2006 and remains the only government funded organisation of its type in the world. A beacon, a workhorse, a champion, a thinker. We wouldn’t have got this far without it. I’m sorry that I won’t be its chair after 2017.

What new technology or development are you most looking forward to?

Not what but how: new technologies and developments that are genuinely co-produced with patients, carers, and health professionals. Much of the way we do research feels deeply prosaic and faltering in its efforts to meet the health and social care challenges ahead. Co-production may just be the answer. What do we lose by trying it?

What book should every doctor read?

Being Mortal by Atul Gawande. Or Testing Treatments by Hazel Thornton, Iain Chalmers, Imogen Evans, and Paul Glasziou.

What is your guiltiest pleasure?

“Discos” crisps. (This doesn’t sit well with the question about health and fitness!)

Where are or when were you happiest?

With my wife, Nicky, and my sons. And when Crystal Palace win a game—which is very rare at the moment.

What television programmes do you like?

I get more pleasure from radio, to be honest, but I do like to watch MasterChef. If I’m in Canada or the States I tend to watch non-stop American football.

What personal ambition do you still have?

I used to have a pilot’s licence, and I still hanker after landing a jumbo jet.

Summarise your personality in three words

I hope that people would say: optimistic, generous, calm.

What is your pet hate?

Trolley bags. They’re a menace, particularly the ones that stop at the top of escalators or trail behind their owner.

What would be on the menu for your last supper?

Poached egg on toast with a cup of tea. It reminds me of growing up.

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

A poem I wrote about my late sister, Claire, some time ago ( It’s how I hope that people might remember me.

Is the thought of retirement a dream or a nightmare?

I hope that I’ll embrace it when it comes, and I suspect that, when it does, no one will be “retired” in the way we see it today.

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

I’d like to be flying seaplanes in Canada, serving remote communities with supplies and transport. I love Canada and its people.

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