Clare Marx, president of the Royal College of Surgeons of England
The first female president of the Royal College of Surgeons of England talks about what she hopes to achieve and meeting patients in the supermarket
Clare Marx has practised as an orthopaedic surgeon at Ipswich Hospital NHS Trust for more than 20 years. She studied medicine at University College London, qualifying in 1977. In 1990 she was appointed consultant orthopaedic surgeon at St Mary’s Hospital and St Charles’ Hospital, London, with a specialist interest in early surgical education. In 1993 she moved to Ipswich Hospital, becoming clinical director of the combined accident and emergency, trauma and orthopaedics, and rheumatology directorate. She is currently associate medical director at the trust with a special remit for revalidation and appraisal. She was elected to the Royal College of Surgeons Council in England in 2009 and took up the position of president of the college in July 2014
Why did you decide to become a doctor?
I have been told that as a child I was inquisitive. At the age of five I was taken to an emergency department with a cut on my finger. Instead of sitting still I went around everybody in the waiting room asking them what was wrong. Although I came from a non-medical family, I definitely felt more comfortable on the science side at school. I originally took an interest in engineering, but I knew it was not quite right for me. I wanted to spend my time making a difference to people, and a career in medicine could help me achieve this.
Why did you choose to specialise in orthopaedic surgery?
The doctors I met early on in my career helped to shape my direction. During my medical training I did work experience with a charismatic surgeon and subsequently went on to a house job with him. This positive experience encouraged me to pursue surgery as a specialty. Later in my training I had a rotation in orthopaedics and thought that it was a fantastically constructive specialty and slightly like engineering, so I decided to progress in that field.
When you look back on your career, what are you most proud of?
I am proud of the fact that in my career I made a positive difference to the patients I treated. The most difficult time was when I stopped clinical practice and needed to empty my office. I had a filing cabinet that was full of the thank you letters I’d kept from patients. I was sad that, due to patient confidentiality, I had to consign them to the confidential waste sack. Now I meet people on whom I operated when I am in the supermarket. They stop to talk to me about how they are doing. Being part of that community and serving them well has been tremendously rewarding.
What do you hope to achieve as president of the Royal College of Surgeons of England?
I would like people to look at the organisation as a relevant, up to date, and consistent professional body that wants to advance surgical care. We can do that by giving leadership and guidance on high professional standards, by educating and supporting those who innovate and deliver the care, and by providing input into the tough decisions on future health policy. I want to see the college supporting and pushing forward the agenda for innovative, high tech, timely, safe, effective, and compassionate care.
Do you foresee any challenges?
Having a publicly funded system is a most extraordinary privilege, but we need to look at whether the funding stream currently meets demand, including whether we can afford everything to remain on public funding. Are we open to having discussions about reducing duplication and waste as well as how we can increase funding for the NHS?
Why is compassionate care important to you?
Part of the joy of medicine is that we have the privilege to be let into other people’s lives, to make that difference. Health problems affect us all. My fracture clinic used to have people from every social strata in the waiting room on any one day. It is a privilege to be able to provide them with the best care possible.
Do you think there are any gaps in surgical and medical training?
I do not think that undergraduates receive enough information or insight into a career in surgery. We need medical students to get enthused by surgery at an early stage; otherwise it is hard to attract people into surgical careers. Given that half of medical students are women, unless we can explain to them that they do fit into the surgical profession, we will be selecting from a very small talent pool in the future. This would be a tragedy for surgery, but also it could mean that a lot of women would miss out on the opportunity to have a great career.
You have held many leadership roles—do you think doctors are sufficiently trained to lead?
I do not think that surgeons receive enough training on how to lead. We need to be much more upfront about how people get into leadership roles and grow our leadership workforce. If we want more choice in leadership then we have to nurture it at an earlier stage, starting at medical school.
Is there an overlap between the skills of a good surgeon and those of a good leader?
The surgeon does lead their team. To be a good surgeon and leader you need good values, to know what they are, and be true to them. I think you must be generous, understand risk, the potential impact of those risks, and be willing to make decisions based on them. You also need a sense of humour and, of course, good stamina.
Do you have any advice for students who are interested in a career in surgery?
Make an effort to be with surgeons—to hear first hand what it is like to live the life of a surgeon by talking to those who are on their way or have already achieved it. Take a variety of views and then make a judgment on what suits you best. Find a role model and perhaps a mentor whom you respect. Use your time wisely to further your career and make sure you’re the person with the best CV when you come to apply for jobs. Work hard at the day job and the relationships in your working and personal life, but most of all make sure you have some fun.Gabby Deehan, third year medical student
1King’s College London, UK
Competing interests: None declared.
Provenance and peer review: Not commissioned; not externally peer reviewed.
Cite this as: Student BMJ 2015;23:h4210