Professor John Bligh

Article by Marc Thomas, Journalist and Publisher
Twitter @iammarcthomas

Professor John Bligh is a man with a lot of responsibility. Dean of Medicine and Head of the School of Medicine are his titles, but the responsibility is much wider than a job title. Rather, Bligh is responsible for assuring the quality of the medical education in Cardiff.

That’s a mantle he takes up with some considerable talent and experience.

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“I’ve been here since 2010. I came as Dean of Medical Education and my task was to rescue the undergraduate medical education programme from the bottom of the National Student Survey, where it had been for three years and to try and get it up the table,” he explains. “ After lots of consultation in Wales and lots of staff development, we – meaning the whole team around 60, 70 or 80 people – introduced a completely new teaching programme that started last year, called C21. That is now up and running.”

Bligh, a fourth generation GP from Liverpool, studied medicine at St Andrews and then Manchester before going into practice in Chester for 11 years. During that time, he became involved in teaching medical students and young doctors.

“Then, I got involved with the Royal College of GPs, did some work with them in Saudi Arabia, trying to set up a training programme for young Saudi doctors,” he says of his past work. “I left general practice to work at University of Liverpool and to set up a training programme for the Department of Health to improve the quality of the prescribing doctors were doing in the UK.”

Bligh went on to become Senior Lecturer and Professor at Liverpool before going to set up the new Peninsula Medical School in Plymouth and Exeter in 2001, where he was one of the foundation staff.

In Cardiff, Bligh has carried on much of the work that he has been involved in for a long time: improving medical education. However, in his new role, he is also responsible for other parts of the output of the School.

“We are the biggest School in the University. There are 1100 staff and we have a budget of £30 million,” he explains. “Our priorities are to do what a medical school does essentially – and that’s teach students, do research and invent – that’s our duty. We owe society a debt for the money and the faith it invests in the University and obviously the medical school. Patients and people of the population expect us to do research which will lead to new cures and new treatments. It expects us to produce the best doctors and it expects us to do what universities do and that’s invent. So the priorities are around doing those things well.”

Indeed, our conversation happens in the same week that Deputy Dean Michael Owen received a knighthood in the birthday Honours list.

“That reflects the sort of thing Cardiff does: world class research that makes a difference to the way patients are treated and diagnoses are made. So one of the priorities is making sure we continue to invest in the best possible science,” Bligh continues. “The second priority is to make sure we continue to develop our teaching programme for students. We want the students to have the best experience they can get but we also want to get the best students. If we can get a reputation for having a great and very interesting course which is strong on science, focusses on patient safety, makes pupils think and above all provides doctors who can provide a service for the NHS, then I think we’ll get somewhere.”

On this point, Bligh is keen to stress the necessity for public benefit with regards to innovation. For him, it is not enough to invent something new. He believes that those inventions must also go some way towards making Wales and the wider world a healthier, better place.

“The message for what we’re trying to do in Cardiff Medical School now and for the next few years is to make a difference to the way patients and populations are treated. So, our innovations need to have an impact beyond commercialisation, they need to be able to do something that makes a difference to patients or makes a difference to the way people live and look after their health so that they don’t become patients,” he says.

But across such a huge staff who are all feeding into each others ideas and practices, how does the School find the innovation? Surely that is one of the most difficult things to accomplish?

ENVIROMENTAL PORTRAIT OF PROF JOHN BLIGH“In each of the institutes within the medical school – and we have half a dozen or so of those – we have innovation champions. Hopefully then, you’d know you had one and you’d go and see him or her and say ’I’ve got this great idea,’ and so the innovation champion would then discuss with you what you’d do: does it moved onto a patent? Do we go on and get it invented? We often find a company that wants to invest in it,” Bligh explains. “The innovation champion would draw the ideas to the attention of the institute in general and that would draw the college’s attention too – there’s a Dean in overall charge of it and individuals like Professor Hall who are key components in making those things get out there. So some internal work to develop the ideas behind the concepts, maybe test the concepts and then some external work to go out to the market, to go out to commercialisation and then to go out to the NHS and have wider impact. So there is a structure.”

What’s interesting though is the point that Bligh attaches to the end of this explanation of the system. Here he talks about creating a culture of innovation within the School.

“I think there’s a lot of innovation going on but a lot of it is not called innovation and maybe people just don’t think about it. I’m sure this is the case – they just don’t think about how they could use what they’re doing in an innovation sense, so in the sense that there is a commercial product or healthcare impact product or whatever might be related to it. There’s work to do be done there and one example of the work that needs to be done is giving examples of what’s meant by innovation,” he says.

Asked if he has anything to add to what he has already said, Bligh thinks for a moment and then offers some pointers towards where he sees the future of the school’s reputation:

“I should say that Cardiff Medical School is a great place to be – because it is. Since I’ve been here as Dean, I’ve met a lot of very talented, very nice and very enthusiastic and committed individuals. So the changes we’re making to the way the medical school is organised and our emphasis on innovation and research and teaching is all designed to recognise all the things that we do,” he says in closing. “We’re going up the league tables, we’ve improved on national student survey immense and we’re now into the top half of the table having been at the bottom of it. It’s good news really. So when we get into the world cup of medical education, we should have a good a chance of getting into the top 16.”

Photography by Meg Pearsons, Senior Clinical Photographer, Media Resources Centre