On call for the royal household
President of the Royal College of Physicians and former physician to the queen
Richard Thompson studied Natural Sciences and medicine at Oxford University. After a number of junior posts in London, he specialised in gastroenterology, practising until his retirement in 2005. He led an active clinical research laboratory for more than 30 years, supervising 30 MD and PhD theses, and publishing over 200 papers. He was physician to the Queen for 21 years, and now sits on the Ministry of Defence Ethics Committee, in addition to being a trustee for several charities. He was treasurer of the Royal College of Physicians from 2003 until he was elected president in 2010
Why did you pick medicine over a career in surgery?
When I was a student I was more oriented towards science and physiology. So although I think surgery is a wonderful career, and patients are often grateful for a rapid improvement, I much preferred medicine because it was more thoughtful.
You’ve also been quite involved in academic medicine. Do you think every doctor has a duty to get involved in academia?
No, I don’t think it’s a duty, but I do think it improves you as a doctor. It improves your teaching as well because you know about the science in your area. Even if you’re in a peripheral hospital there is no reason why you can’t get involved in research. Perhaps population research, things like that.
Doctors in larger hospitals should be encouraged to do some scientific research. It’s also very important to remember it isn’t all laboratory work, but flexibility in your approach is very important. You often find that some people’s interest in research peters out while others’ blossoms.
On top of your daily practice, you were physician to the Queen for 21 years. How does one get the post?
It’s not something you can plan. It’s whether you’re the right person at the right time, with the right skills, right age, and all that. It is chance in that someone discusses whether you might be the right person and asks if you’d like to do it. I wouldn’t plan it as a career move.
Did you enjoy your time at the royal household?
It was a very interesting job. My time with the Queen was restricted to the UK, so I didn’t have to go abroad. Some of the time I was responsible for the medical care of the entire household, but there was also a general practitioner to share the workload.
You’re involved with government affairs as well. What can a doctor bring to the Ministry of Defence Ethics Committee?
Well, we have several doctors. They do a lot of interesting work because they have a defined population. We test equipment and review all sorts of things that involve clinical research , making sure that the right questions are being asked.
It’s an extremely important committee. Because the recruits are in the services, they are perhaps more likely to agree to take part in research than someone off the street. It interests them because often they like having an afternoon off from perhaps mundane duties. So I think there are subtle pressures that the ethics committee has to keep an eye on and ensure everything is confidential and has no effect on careers, and that there are no unnecessary risks.
What do you think of the NHS plans for reform?
Like myself, our members and fellows are very concerned about the bill, and we surveyed their views as to whether to accept or reject the bill. In future, we have to look at how we can improve the service to make it more efficient and save money. Given the increasing age of the population, the rise in acute admissions, and the increasing expense of new treatments, it will be difficult for any government to say to the public, “We cannot afford a world class service because that’s all we can afford.”
As head of the college, why do you think so many foreign doctors choose to take MRCP exams?
I think they often need to progress in their careers in terms of practice and academia. MRCP is a very carefully thought out exam. It forces you to concentrate on the skills necessary to pass the exams and, if you like, it is a summative assessment of abilities, showing that you are up to a standard. It helps to hone your personal standards as well.
What do you hope to achieve in your time as president?
Medicine is still a wonderful career and it’s hard to keep up to date because things change so quickly. With this in mind, we’ve just launched two new membership categories for young doctors so they become part of the college early.
I am particularly pleased with this because nowadays many junior doctors and students are interested in their careers early on, perhaps much more so than when I was a student. We regret that doctors need to make a decision so early on which is why we helped break the terrible MMC [Modernising Medical Careers] programme. We want people to do core medical training after their two foundation years. That way, they still have time to decide which specialty they want to go with. A lot of people change their minds. You can’t know until you actually do it.Joshua Newmark, second year medical student
1University of St Andrews
Correspondence to: firstname.lastname@example.org
Competing interests: None declared.
Provenance and peer review: Not commissioned; not externally peer reviewed.
Cite this as: Student BMJ 2012;20:e2997