In an exclusive interview Hannah Adams speaks with David Probert, the new CEO at Moorfields, on his role, preventing sight loss and his favourite biscuit.
It’s a dreary Thursday morning in early June and the new CEO of Moorfields Eye Hospital starts his day with an intense -strength coffee handed to him by his PA, Heather.
With 18 years experience of running NHS hospitals under his belt, David Probert is in the middle of his seventh week in the job.
“You wouldn’t have known it was the second day of summer, would you?” David laughs.
The weather had been particularly miserable so far that morning. By 9:00am a blanket of grey cloud covers the sky.
“I’m settling in well thanks. We’ve got over thousand people working for us so by NHS standards it’s a small-to-medium sized organisation, but in terms of eye hospitals, it’s the biggest in the world. You can put your arms around it [Moorfields] and get to know the people well which is great.”
On my way to the interview that morning, I had noticed the staff saying “good morning” to each other and to patients.
“It’s a very friendly, welcoming environment,” he explains. Since starting at Moorfields, no two days have been the same. David wants to visit every service offered across Moorfields’ 32 sites (including two satellite sites in the Middle East).
“Part and parcel of the job for me is understanding what is going on in the 32 sites and making sure that we’re delivering the best possible care we can as efficiently as possible.”
David is familiar to working in hospitals that have a strong association with academia as well as service delivery. He’s confident his experience of running hospitals that blend the challenges of research and development with managing a service can benefit Moorfields in the future.
David worked as the Chief Operating Officer at The Royal Marsden and was Director of Strategic Development at University College London Hospitals’ collectively for over eight years. Both are renowned for having strong academic environments.
“It’s very different to just a service-led organisation.
“I’ve also got a lot of experience blending commercial activity with NHS activity. We have a big commercial service here but we could probably be even more effective in the way we deliver that.”
At any one time, Moorfields and its partner university hospital, University College London is involved in around 100 research projects. A high profile 10-year project led by Moorfields and the Institute of Ophthalmology has been looking at restoring vision using stem cell transplantation technology. A number of patients have been involved in the trial with the results due to be published later this year.
When asked what he thinks of people’s acceptance of stem cell and gene replacement technology, David replies, “It’s a difficult one to answer. I haven’t heard anything negative. Restoring somebody’s sight quite rightly has all the emotive connotations with it. I would imagine they probably are [supportive] but that may just be driven by the way we communicate with the public about these kinds of things.”
“Education is an area where we have a very proud history here. At least half of the UK’s ophthalmologists have come through Moorfields for some kind of training, so we’ve got a really important role. But we’re probably not delivering as wider set of education as we should do. And so that’s something for us to consider more widely.
“We want to align our education strategy. We’re already talking as an organisation about how we could achieve that.”
Another education-related area he’s interested in is preventing sight loss. “We haven’t had a massive role in prevention. We’ve got public health teams here and we’ve tried to influence national and international policy."
David explains that Moorfields is one of the world leading centres for eye care and research. At the moment it’s in the process of being reaccredited as a biomedical research centre. If all goes to plan, Moorfields will have five more years as a biomedical research centre “which is really important for us.”
The CEO is no stranger to the pressures felt by hospitals. This year, eye clinics have been pushed firmly into the spotlight due to the increased demand in appointments from an aging population.
In March, Professor Carrie MacEwen, president of the Royal College of Ophthalmologists said the demand on ophthalmology, like all areas of healthcare, “is increasing like never before.”
“It’s a huge challenge. Last year, we saw 105,000 people coming through our A and E, a year-on-year rise of six to eight per cent. What we can’t do is get bigger and bigger and bigger because it’s not affordable and you’d end up having urgent eye centres everywhere which would diminish the quality of the care provided.
“One of the most important things to move us forward with delivering care is how technology allows us to deliver more virtual care. A patient group was talking to me around wanting to use their iPad technology or tablet technology to make their own assessment of their well-being and then sending that to somebody who can then decide whether or not they need to come into the hospital. Technology is a real enabler potentially to help us."
As the conversation begins to wrap up, one of the last questions is about the deadline for the Accessible Information Standard that’s due to come into force at the end of July. The standard will make sure blind and partially sighted people will be able to have medical information in a format they can read.
“One of the challenges about being spread over so many sites is ensuring all of our sites across our network are consistent but we feel relatively confident and comfortable that we’re going to meet the standard. It’s a very important standard and it’s critical for hospital’s to be accessible. We are working with many partners such as RNIB to ensure we are doing all we can to make our services and information as accessible as possible to our patients.”
As well as revealing his favourite biscuit (Oreo), one lasting thing David mentions is the relative cost saving early prevention work could have to families and individuals who currently have to support their loved ones with sight loss.
“We’ve done a few exercises to demonstrate that if we can restore people’s sight earlier, the sort of money we need to put into doing that is tiny compared to the money people have to spend to support people because they’ve blind or partially sighted. The fact it economically makes a lot of sense helps us to push our arguments that enables us to continue our research in this area. And of course, it’s the most important and moral thing to do too.”