Surgeon calls for direct public engagement to be at centre of NHS transparency

Tim UnderwoodOne of the UK's top surgeons has called for annual public events to become a requirement for all clinicians in the NHS. 

Mr Tim Underwood, a consultant oesophageal surgeon at Southampton General Hospital, said giving members of the public a chance to see "the person behind the scrubs and the gloves" was the only way to ensure "absolute transparency".

He spoke ahead of his first 'audience with...' event, Surgeon, which will take place at Winchester Discovery Centre on Friday (8 November) and give an insight into his training, career highs and research - but also human error in the operating theatre.

"This year has been an extremely important one in terms of progressing the search for transparency in the NHS but, in my opinion, we are still some way off reaching our goal nationally," he explained.

"Take individual surgeons' mortality data for example, which was hailed by the Government as a milestone but, in fact, showed everything that's wrong with a quick-fix solution.

"In reality, the first specialty to have its data released received widespread negative media attention with heavy criticism of one or two individuals and the subsequent specialties hardly secured a column inch or any public discussion."

Mr Underwood, who is a Medical Research Council clinician scientist at the University of Southampton, said while he feels "personally responsible" for outcomes, they are not just the result of his surgical skills and that is why consultant-level data should be "taken with a truck load of salt".

"If a plane falls out of the sky due to engine failure, is the pilot to blame? And should we even ask who is to blame anyway? I don't think we should and nor does anyone in healthcare worth listening to," he said.

"What we should be looking at is how we can ingrain absolute transparency in the system right from the beginning of a career - and that starts with medical school training and a focus on actually speaking to members of the public about your job."

He continued: “It is equally as important to hear directly from the public what they want and expect from their National Health Service.”

Mr Underwood said he would like to see all doctors and surgeons hold one or two open public events every year throughout their career to aid engagement and openness and help demystify medicine.

"Public engagement events, such as the one I am holding, are the perfect way to express the complexities of working in the modern NHS and, regardless of whether or not doctors or surgeons want to, it should be a requirement for all teams of clinicians to hold one or two open events a year," he said.

"It doesn't matter if it's to five people or 500, just offering yourself up to talk candidly about your life and work instils more confidence in you and the people you are treating than any other method and we should embrace it."

Surgeon will take place at Winchester Discovery Centre on Friday (8 November) from 7pm to 8.30pm. Tickets, priced at £5 (£4.50 concessions), are available from or the booking office on 01962 873603.

Posted on Tuesday 5 November 2013