Review: Women of Achievement, ‘A Career in Public Service’ presented by Dame Sally Davies, Chief Medical Officer for England

On 1 June 2010, Dame Sally Davies (DBE), Director-General of Research and Development at the Department of Health, made history, when she was appointed Chief Medical Officer for England. In accepting the appointment, Dame Davies became the first women to hold the post, breaking 155 years of patriarchal tradition. It was perhaps only fitting, then, that Dame Davies delivered the inaugural lecture for the ‘Women of Achivement’ Lecture Series, on Wednesday 17 February, 2016. Taking place over 2016/17, the series intends to showcase and celebrate women’s achievement and leadership across a wide range of sectors. Funded by the Vice-Chancellor’s Diversity Fund, the ‘Women in Achievement’ series is hosted by Professor Louise Richardson, herself a woman of considerable achievement – like Dame Davies, she is the first woman to hold her post, as Vice Chancellor of the University of Oxford. Both Dame Davies and Professor Richardson have made their mark in their chosen professional fields, and in doing so, broken boundaries; the ‘Women of Achievement’ Lecture Series aims to recognise such women, and their accomplishments.

One could be forgiven for assuming Davies’s current position was achievement enough to grant her the right to present her talk on ‘A Career in Public Service.’ Her Chief Medical Officer post, however, is by no means her only notable achievement. In addition to her twenty four honourary degrees, Dame Davies has a Bachelor of Medicine, Bachelor of Surgery (MB ChB) from the University of Manchester, and a Master of Science (MSc) from the University of London, as well as the BBC ranking as the “6th Most Powerful Woman” in the UK, and, of course, her OBritish. Despite this, Davies was quick to note that her many accomplishments, despite bearing her name, were not a singular effort, and a consistent emphasis in her presentation involved her crediting those who had assisted her along her way.

Beginning with her career as consultant haematologist at the Central Middlesex Hospital, where she worked patients who suffered from Sickle Cell Disease, Davies tracked her career from this local level of public health, through to her current international platform. Along the way, she has been Director-General of Research and Development at the Department of Health, one of the founders of the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR, founded in 2006), and Chief Scientific Adviser to the Health Secretary. Dame Davies is a passionate believer in the public health system, but only where this is backed by research, and driven by the needs of patients. She thus spoke at length about creating funding to allow such research to happen: in addition to the NIHR Clinical Research Network (a system which collects data on patients from GP clinics, and uses this information to recruit patients for further NIHR studies), she has assisted in the creation of the NIHR Research Professorships, which aim to fund young researchers for five years, in the hope that during this time, they will break new scientific ground. The University of Oxford is currently home to 4 of the 26 current appointees.

A large part of Davies’s current role as Chief Medical Officer involves dealing with contemporary health events – the 2014 West Africa Ebola Outbreak is a major example. While discussing this briefly, Dame Davies chose to focus on a developing concern: the rise in Antimicrobial Resistance (AMR). Since the discovery of Penicillin, the first antibiotic, in the 19th century, an average of 20 years has been added to the life of each person born in the “post-antibiotic” age. Antibiotics are the foundations of modern medicine – they underpin everything from chemotherapy, hip replacements, caesarean sections, organ donations, to minor cuts and infected lesions. No new class of antibiotics, however, has been discovered since 1987, and given the prevalence of those in current use, there exists an enormous risk that soon, antibiotic-resistant microbes will develop, and make once-treatable diseases untreatable. If left unresolved, Dame Davies and colleagues (including those at WHO, the World Health Organisation) estimate AMR could, by 2050, result in more deaths annually than cancer – somewhere in the region of 10 million, worldwide.

Not all is lost, however, and Dame Davies concluded her insightful, and in many ways enlightening, presentation on what is currently being done to combat AMR – in 2014, the World Health Assembly signed the AMR Resolution, which led to the Global Action Plan 2015 – every country who signed this is committed to producing its own national plan to prevent AMR increase within two years. The Global Action Plan is the first step in what WHO intends to be an ongoing consultative process between its member states, and it is largely focused on recognizing the scope of the AMR problem. It does, however, seek to establish a ‘global development and stewardship framework’ which will support the development, control, distribution and use of new antimicrobial medicines (AMM), while also preserving those AMM already in use. Additionally, for the first time, the G20 Summit (held this September in Hangzhou, China) will discuss a health topic: AMR. Dame Davies’s conclusion? Watch this space.

In the Q&A which followed, Davies was asked what drives her. She answered that she seeks to make a difference. Given what she has accomplished thus far, Dame Sally Davies is undoubtedly succeeding, and there is little doubt she will continue to meet the targets she has set herself. She is, in many ways, the epitome of a ‘woman of achievement.’

Ashlee Beazley

Future lectures in the ‘Women of Achievement’ series will be announced via the University’s website.

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