“Patients want to know how much you care before they want to know how much you know.”
With these words, Irish doctor Aidan Halligan, who rose to the top of the British National Health Service and who has died aged 57, put his patient at the heart of the healthcare system. “Doing the right thing on a difficult day” was his mantra.
He and his wife, Carol (Furlong), from Blackrock, Co Dublin, met as medical students at Trinity College Dublin.
On graduation – he had to repeat his finals – they had gone to England, just for a year they thought, but they got jobs and stayed.
“ I loved being a doctor dealing with patients,” he explained “but I was also afraid of making the same mistakes, year after year, with increasing confidence.”
He went into obstetrics because he was told he had a good bedside manner. Then he became a professor of foetal and maternal medicine in Leicester before taking on a national role as the first NHS director of clinical governance.
A professorship was his way of overcompensating for failing his finals, he said. Restless for new challenges, he went on to become deputy chief medical officer for England and had turned down the position of first chief executive of the Irish Health Service Executive (HSE) in 2004, citing family reasons. He would later categorise the Irish health service as being overmanaged and underled.
At the time of his death, Prof Halligan was director of
, with a brief that involved trying to improve the health of the underprivileged across the north of England.
He was principal of the NHS staff college for leadership development and chairman of Pathway, a charity developing health services for the homeless which came into being when a 43-year-old man died in the street outside a London hospital where Halligan worked.
The eldest of six children, after attending Templeogue College in south Dublin, Aidan William Francis Halligan spent a year in a seminary before deciding he wanted to do something more “hands on” than being a priest. After a few stopgap jobs, he became a full-time student aged 21.
In the event, his career became a series of challenges, mostly in Britain, many positions not lasting more than two or three years.
Between 1999 and 2006 he held high-profile appointments in the National Health Service, notably as head of the clinical governance support team, then deputy chief medical officer and finally director of clinical governance. For two years he ran Elision Health Ltd, an innovative training establishment where surgical and multi-disciplinary teams could develop their skills.
In 2007 he became director of education at University College London Hospital. Homeless people are often noisy and difficult in accident and emergency departments.
Helping stressed hospital staff to see beyond problematic behaviour to the person in pain was more important than treating symptoms, Halligan insisted.
From 2008 to 2013 he was chief of safety for Brighton and Sussex university hospitals. He encouraged staff to speak up for those in their care, and for each other, and to focus on bedside care.
During this time he was invited to the military field hospital at Camp Bastion in Afghanistan, home to one of the most difficult emergency departments in the world.
He might have been expected to impart expertise in hospital governance. Instead, inspired by the total focus on patient care in very hostile conditions, he came back full of ideas to help colleagues at home fulfil their potential as leaders.
This led to the foundation of the NHS staff college in 2010. Halligan’s openness to learning, his ability to listen sympathetically to personal stories and his deep compassion for patients, made him an exceptional figure.
"Strategies, blueprints, fancy reports, they never work," Halligan told a meeting of head teachers in Ireland in 2013. "You have to come in alongside people to make a difference."
Aidan Halligan is survived by his wife, Dr Carol Furlong, children Molly, Rebecca and Daisy, his mother, Maureen, brothers Peter and Karl and sisters Ursula, Maurita and Noirín.