Inspirational women in healthcare leadership

2nd November 2021

Inspirational women from the healthcare sector spoke at our Women in Leadership session on 30 September.

Our Women in Leadership forum has been set up, not just for women, but for everyone. It is a chance to hear from charismatic and successful women – business leaders, owners and entrepreneurs. The forum provides an opportunity to network and come together to build relationships and share knowledge. Each event is designed to empower and inspire with a different theme and an influential guest speaker.

In this event, we were fortunate to hear from two guest speakers, Professor Baroness Ilora Finlay and Catherine Drennan.

Shaped by childhood

Baroness Ilora spoke about her personal journey and how her childhood influences have been key in how she approaches everything in life. Having grown up in a polio epidemic and surrounded by a variety of serious illnesses, she wanted to be a doctor from an early age.

Her younger brother nearly passed away and her dad was taken ill for a year. She spent three months in a hospital ward as an 18 month old, barely seeing her mother. Given a difficult childhood, it was not a surprise that there was anger as a teenager, which threatened her education but wise words got her back on track and helped inspire excellent results.

Baroness Ilora’s dad said to her:

If you want to change the world, you must get to the top and not lose your principles on the way.

This is something that she has stuck by throughout an incredible career, having done wonders for hospices and palliative care.

In a role early in her career, Baroness Ilora made sure everybody learned how to provide good pain control, which was not common at the time. How to get on top of pain but below the level of toxicity is crucial. She spoke about how pain was more than just physical, it is multi-factorial – emotional, spiritual, social and physical.

Baroness Ilora established the Marie Curie Hospice in 1987 and the Diploma/MSc in Palliative Medicine in 1989; lead for Palliative Care in Wales 2008-2017 and developed wider bereavement support.

She is President of the Chartered Society for Physiotherapy, President of Attend, Vice President of Hospice UK and of Marie Curie Care. Past-President of BMA, RSM and Association for Palliative Medicine. Elected member of BMA Ethics Committee and Bevan Commissioner in Wales.

She chairs the National Mental Capacity Forum (England and Wales) for Ministry of Justice since 2015. She also became a life-Peer in 2001 in the House of Lords; a Deputy Speaker since 2018.

Baroness Ilora was previously member of various House of Lords Select Committee inquiries in Science and Technology, Allergy, the Built Environment and the Assisted Dying for the Terminally Ill Bill. Vice Chair of various All Party Parliamentary Groups (APPG).

She is also the founder of think-tank Living and Dying Well 2010 and chair of Alcohol Harms Commission 2019-present report ‘Its Everywhere’ 2020.

Lessons taken

As you can see, Baroness Ilora has help force change, and continues to do so, in an incredible career. Speaking about lessons learned, she said: “My one lesson from all of this is what is our legacy for the next generation? Childhood influences have driven me, what I do comes from the heart. I’ve never planned to be in any of the positions I have been in but when I’ve thought something needs to change, sometimes you have to put your head above the parapet.”

Speaking about the pandemic, Baroness Ilora highlighted how we should value life every day and realise that it is precious and fragile. The coronavirus pandemic has been devastating and that we have a duty to keep each other safe. We are lucky enough to have vaccinations when we haven’t in previous pandemics, but vaccinations are not the total answer. We need to look after ourselves and be more aware of public health and our own health.

Facing challenges

It was also great to hear from Catherine Drennan, Head of Legal at the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA). She has been with the HFEA since 2007 and was appointed Head of Legal in 2012. She has guided the HFEA through every one of the numerous high profile legal cases the organisation has faced over the last 14 years and in recognition of her contribution to this challenging body of law, in February 2019 she was named The Legal 500 Public Sector Person of the Year. Her work involves a broad range of legally and ethically challenging issues that arise when the law does not keep abreast of the rapid advances in science and medicine.

As the first regulator in the world tasked with regulating such a contentious and emotionally charged area, her work and that of the HFEA is closely watched by other fertility regulators and Catherine is often consulted by governments around the world seeking to introduce their own regulatory frameworks. At the height of the pandemic, Catherine succeeded in making the case for the Secretary of State for Health to introduce regulations to assist patients whose fertility treatment was impacted by the pandemic. One of Catherine’s proudest achievements at the HFEA is having ushered in a more collaborative and consultative approach to the resolution of complex issues of law and ethics.

Catherine spoke about what she has picked up from women in her career – having a sense of right and wrong, not taking the path of least resistance but the path you believe is right. Also possessing a positive energy and taking time to understand people, really get to know them. When you need people to get behind you and pull together, this can be hugely beneficial – it engenders trust.

“As women, I believe we are underrepresented in leadership roles but that doesn’t mean there aren’t amazing women leaders amongst us. Learn from them and hold them up as examples,” commented Catherine.

She also spoke about what she thought made a great leader. Treat people fairly and with respect, be courageous, and do the right thing.

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