Intended for healthcare professionals

Observations BMJ Confidential

Jason Leitch: Three chords and the tooth

BMJ 2018; 360 doi: (Published 28 February 2018) Cite this as: BMJ 2018;360:k832


Jason Leitch is a dentist and oral surgeon whose career took a fresh turn after he spent a year at the Institute for Healthcare Improvement (IHI) and the Harvard School of Public Health in Boston, USA. Achieving better quality was the mantra, and Leitch has been national clinical director for the NHS in Scotland since 2015. “I didn’t do fillings for long: a year was plenty,” he says of his career as a dentist, but he has flourished as the advocate of IHI’s quality improvement agenda—“pushing and pushing and pushing to be the best in the world at reducing and preventing adverse events,” he says. Last year he risked the wrath of the middle classes by suggesting that they, not old people, were putting too much pressure on the system, urging them to walk more and eat a better diet. He regularly spends time in India, leading a team of healthcare workers in caring for hundreds of young people.

What was your earliest ambition?

Mum remembers me asking at a very early age whether everyone had to be something. She said yes, and I replied, “Well, Dad isn’t anything . . .” So, I wanted to be something.

What was your best career move?

A Health Foundation funded quality improvement fellowship at the IHI and the Harvard School of Public Health in 2005.

What was the worst mistake in your career?

I gave Scotland’s first minister the wrong mortality statistic in the early days of the Scottish Patient Safety Programme. I realised and corrected it at an Edinburgh Castle evening reception, but for about six hours I feared that my short bureaucratic career was over.

How is your work-life balance?

I asked an independent witness, and Mrs Leitch says, “It balances out: decent holidays and long working days.”

How do you keep fit and healthy?

I cycle for an hour a day as part of my long commute, and I love my new NutriBullet [fruit and veg blender].

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

I’d like to integrate the NHS and education services throughout life, from nursery to higher education.

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

That it’s OK to like country music—you don’t have to say that you like Pink Floyd.

Do doctors and dentists get paid enough?

In the main, yes, but the range is too broad.

To whom would you most like to apologise?

The early patients and families I treated technically competently but not necessarily as compassionately as I would now.

What do you usually wear to work?

A Rapha shirt, Spoke trousers, and a cycling jacket.

Which living doctor or dentist do you most admire, and why?

David Stenhouse, my surgical mentor and teacher. He taught me to operate but also, more importantly, taught me compassion and care. He also chose me to take his tooth out once but not to give the local anaesthetic!

What is the worst job you have done?

Driving wedding cars that broke down.

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

Childsmile: a broad approach to children’s dental health, including nursery school toothbrushing. It’s revolutionised dental disease in Scotland.

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

No batteries.

What book should every doctor and dentist read?

Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks. Everyone, not just doctors and dentists, should read great fiction.

What is your guiltiest pleasure?

Country music.

Where are or when were you happiest?

Fenway Park [home of the Boston Red Sox]; the Glasgow Film Theatre; and Repalle, southeast India, where I visit an orphanage every two years to lead a healthcare team.

What television programmes do you like?

Ray Donovan, Hawaii Five-0, Channel 4 News, and Strictly Come Dancing.

What personal ambition do you still have?

To abolish set visiting times in Scotland’s hospitals.

Summarise your personality in three words

I’ve taken a non-scientific family sample, and they’ve come up with: happy, generous, and annoying.

What is your pet hate?


What would be on the menu for your last supper?

Haggis with neeps and tatties, from the Ubiquitous Chip in Glasgow.

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

“We Could Fly” by Rhiannon Giddens.

Is the thought of retirement a dream or a nightmare?

Neither. It feels like a transition to more choice and more commitment to things I still want to contribute to.

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

I’d be Jean Valjean [protagonist in Les Misérables]—obviously.

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