Life after medicine: improving healthcare away from the frontline

Doctors' scrubs hanging up

Right now, we’ve never been more grateful for the health and care workers who are tirelessly demonstrating their dedication to our health and wellbeing.

Supporting our health system, too, are many unsung heroes working away from the frontline. People who may have hung up their stethoscopes, but with the same determination to improve health and care.

Like Drs Jack Halligan and Natalia Kurek at IGHI, who both left medicine but are staying at the forefront of healthcare in different ways.

We caught up with Jack and Natalia to find out about their careers post-medicine, how they’re applying what they learnt in medical school, and what the COVID-19 crisis means for their roles.

What inspired you to study medicine?

A photograph of Natalia who studied medicine
Dr Natalia Kurek

Natalia: It sounds like a cliché, but I really just wanted to help people! I studied in Nottingham, where you begin interacting with patients from year one, which really helps to motivate you towards your end goal.
Jack: My dad is a GP, and I really wanted to do what he was doing; he had a really happy life. I went to the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland, the same as our co-director Lord Darzi.

What made you realise that you didn’t want to practice anymore?

A photograph of Jack
Dr Jack Halligan

Natalia: For me it wasn’t really an active decision that I would leave medicine. Until the end I was really enjoying what I was doing. But the pressures I was under as a junior doctor were immense. The long shifts coupled with exams and revision were exhausting. I yearned for a break, so I decided to take time out.
Jack: I realised before I left university that clinical practice wasn’t for me. The lifestyle is so busy and medicine can become your only world – both professionally and socially. There were also some serious cultural issues in Irish hospitals due to hierarchy and I couldn’t see myself in that kind of environment for the rest of my career.

Tell us a bit about your career after medicine

Natalia: My current role at IGHI is the first job I took outside of medicine. I’d been yearning for a role with more breadth than I was experiencing in medicine, and I wanted a better understanding of the NHS at a system level. So I was really lucky to hear about this role through a good friend of mine from work, who knew the person in the position before me.
Jack: I went to a business school in France to do an MBA. I met some of the most interesting people I’ve ever met; it was incredibly socially and intellectually stimulating. I then returned to Ireland to work for a health tech startup that built software for preventative healthcare. After two years I moved to Australia and joined McKinsey as a healthcare consultant, working on really interesting projects such as strategy development for a new payments system to support all medical payments across the country. I then moved back to the UK and took up my current post at IGHI.

What does your role at IGHI look like?

Natalia: I’m a clinical adviser and provide support to both our Co-Director Prof Darzi, and more broadly across IGHI. It’s a really varied role but it might involve preparing briefings and speeches, stakeholder and industry engagement, and supporting our research efforts.
Jack: I’m a policy fellow in health innovation. My role is split into three main areas. The bulk of my work is evaluating digital health technologies, helping companies build the evidence they need to improve their product and ultimately get it commissioned. Think of it like clinical trials, but for tech not drugs. The other parts of my work focus on digital health policy, and exploring commercial opportunities for the Institute.

How do you apply your background in medicine to your job?

Natalia: My experience as a frontline clinician has been incredibly valuable. When people approach us with new healthcare technologies and digital health platforms, my expertise really helps me to understand where the true need lies, from both a patient and clinical perspective. I’m able to assess where these innovations fit in with what’s already available, and whether they address real gaps.
At IGHI, I’m so lucky that I could work on such a range of projects – that breadth is something I didn’t have in medicine.
Jack: Medicine has given me an understanding of the medical world that’s really useful in my role. When people from outside of medicine try to implement something new – whether that’s policy, technology or even recommendations – they may stumble because they lack that knowledge of how doctors think. Understanding the nuances of medical culture really helps when you’re trying to enact change.

How else could people use their medical backgrounds in other roles in healthcare?

Natalia: In lots of ways! Right now for example, there are so many exciting digital healthcare platforms emerging to help systems cope and adapt to coronavirus. Having that expertise and knowledge of what patients and professionals require can help you ensure their success. More broadly, your knowledge can help drive critical improvements in healthcare innovations so that they fit in with the system and better serve their target markets.
Jack: Doctors have an incredible skill set that’s applicable to so many jobs. You’re taught to process lots of information and quickly come up with decisions; you need to be able to work in multi-disciplinary teams; you have to learn how to lead as you become more senior; all of these skills lend themselves to loads of different roles. The world is open to you. Think about what you want to achieve, and you probably can!

Might you be called back to the frontline for COVID-19?

Natalia: I’ve been notified that I may be required to go back. But at the moment, as the system is adapting so well, there hasn’t been a junior doctor shortage. Personally though, I’d be really excited to return if needed, and I’d never want to not be able to help my colleagues at a time of need. Should the opportunity arise, I would step back in proudly and willingly.
Jack: I’ve signed up to the NHS Bringing Back Staff campaign and would be happy to return to hospitals or to help on phones. I haven’t been contacted about returning yet and think it’s unlikely I’ll be asked at this stage, especially as we seem to be through the peak.

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