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Observations BMJ Confidential

Zulfiqar Bhutta: A better world for children

BMJ 2018; 360 doi: (Published 21 February 2018) Cite this as: BMJ 2018;360:k638


Zulfiqar Bhutta, 62, is an energetic and peripatetic paediatrician who has made child health and nutrition his life’s work. Born at the foot of the Khyber Pass, he trained in Peshawar, in Bristol, and at the Karolinska Institute in Sweden, deciding early on that newborn medicine needed the world’s attention. Returning home, he visited remote and risky corners of Pakistan to pioneer community based care strategies. He is founder-director of the Centre of Excellence in Women and Child Health at the Aga Khan University and at its global campuses, combining this with a chair at the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto, Canada. He recently shared (with Samiran Nundy) the BMJ South Asia Award for outstanding achievement.

What was your earliest ambition?

To lead a global revolution for change. Growing up in the restive 1960s with global turmoil and pain, the premise that youth could change the world seemed both real and achievable. As an angry young man, university and national politics seemed the natural path to meaningful change.

What was your best career move?

Moving from a tertiary care hospital practice to establish a community/public health and outreach programme in various parts of rural Pakistan.

What was the worst mistake in your career?

Accepting the opening batsman position in my high school cricket team: a sequence of ducks followed that my friends will never let me outlive.

How is your work-life balance?

Terrible, and it’s a regular focus of my New Year resolutions. Maybe documenting this in The BMJ will help me keep my promise.

How do you keep fit and healthy?

Running whenever I can and eating healthily, although my travel schedule around the globe makes this increasingly difficult, especially given the long flights and airline food.

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

I’m not sure that I’m the best judge, as I left the NHS almost 35 years ago.

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

That the best things in life are those that money can’t buy. Happiness can often be found in doing minuscule things in places you’d least expect.

Do doctors get paid enough?

Some do, and some more than enough. In many other circumstances, especially in low income settings, doctors are paid far less than they deserve.

To whom would you most like to apologise?

To my dear wife, Shereen, for having lumbered her over the years with the burden of raising a family almost singlehandedly, dealing with my frequent absences while she nurtured and supported an amazing academic career herself. I wish that I could’ve been much more supportive to her.

What do you usually wear to work?

Loose, comfortable office clothes, and often a necktie as a security blanket—my only real fetish.

Which living doctor do you most admire, and why?

The young, unnamed, unsung physicians working among conflict zones and refugees in Africa and Asia: they’re the true heroes, taking huge personal risks and working long hours to help the most impoverished and miserable among us. They’re the ones truly upholding the oath that we all took when we graduated.

What is the worst job you have done?

As an aspiring young academic many moons ago, serving in a protocol job at a global scientific assembly. Dealing with big egos in science was a nightmare, and it put me off this aspect of academic medicine forever.

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

I’d single out knowledge syntheses and evidence based practice of medicine. Having trained when observation and role models were the basis for learnt behaviour and practice, ready access to information has changed the way that we practice and teach clinical paediatrics: a far cry from rote learning with the bulky textbooks of yesteryear.

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

Teleportation—it would make my life a whole lot easier. I haven’t given up hope yet . . .

What book should every doctor read?

Being Mortal by Atul Gawande.

What is your guiltiest pleasure?

Listening to old Urdu/Hindi songs, with a handkerchief to hand.

Where are or when were you happiest?

In my town of birth, Peshawar: despite its rustic nature and reputation for insecurity, my annual visits recharge my batteries and reaffirm my faith in the importance of one’s roots.

What television programmes do you like?

Sci-fi programmes, especially those involving interstellar travel and exploration—the ultimate escape! As a lifetime Trekkie and someone who’s seen many technologies become real, I’m just waiting for Leonard “Bones” McCoy’s handheld scanner to appear on Amazon.

What personal ambition do you still have?

To play the keyboard instinctively, without having to negotiate the minefield of sheet music.

Summarise your personality in three words

Honest, inquisitive, and restless.

What is your pet hate?

Insincerity and doublespeak.

What would be on the menu for your last supper?

“Kachnaars” cooked by my mother (I’ll let you figure out what it is).

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

The Road Not Taken by Robert Frost (for the English speaking few), and, for my Desi friends, Zia Mohiuddin’s recital of Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s verses Donon Jahaan Teri Muhabbat Mein Haar Key (loosely translated as Losing Both this World and the Next).

Is the thought of retirement a dream or a nightmare?

Absolutely a much cherished goal, now that it’s very much in sight.

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

Roaming the world, observing amazing people at work, and doing what I could to make it a better place for our children.


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