Howard's story - Part 1

Dr Howard Leicester is featured in Spark the Difference's Humans of Healthcare art exhibition and is interviewed here by Sam Meikle, founder of Spark the Difference.

Howard's interview will be published in two parts. The recording and transcript of Part 1 is below. 

You'll also find links to Howard's two interview warm-ups: (1) Getting to know Howard in 10 questions and (2) Howard's drawing challenge.

Sam: Howard, thanks very much for joining us.

Howard: Pleasure to be here.

Sam: I am really delighted to be interviewing Howard. We’re down in your family home in Otford and you described yourself to me once as a blind visionary, a deaf listener and a patient champion. Can you tell us why use these labels on yourself?

Howard: Patient, very patient, champion. Yes, because these are messages that everyone should be aware of. We are all in our own way blind; unable to see what is obvious to others, that we can’t see. We rarely listen to others. We, we hear, but we don't listen – and to join up patient champion when everything is going so slowly, just to put in patient twice, makes the point – patient, very patient, it's taken longer than we anticipated, champion.

It all fits together and its message quietly making the point and putting a smile on people's faces. And if those people with smiles on their faces really understood what the messages were – they wouldn’t have such a big smile on their face.

Sam: (Laughs) I’m a bit worried ‘cause I always have a very big smile on my face when we spend time together.

And what are you a doctor in?

Howard: I'm a doctor in health informatics and trying to push in particular, patient centered health informatics. And it’s a new discipline that is part of the information and communications technology but it’s trying to be specifically in the health and social care arena and to spread it into other sectors. If everyone starts to realise that health and social care is so important and it’s the basis for everything else in society.

Sam: Where’s your accent from?

Howard: The accent of Kent. I’ve lived in and around basically south London but Kent side of it for virtually all my life. My parents were Londoners, but it’s south east England – well, you call it an accent, I say you’re the one with an accent and I just speak good Queen's English.

Sam: What do you do for work now?

Howard: I work with NHS England and various royal medical colleges, trying to support and champion their projects going on, like the patient online programme, which is about patients having access to their own records.

It’s about the big issue at the moment - the Accessible Information Standard - which is so that everyone who needs it, should have documents in alternative formats best suited for them, or support with face to face communications like sign language, or touch alphabet, or whatever if you have special needs that are direct communication that should be made of as well.

And I work with the College of Physicians and a professional record standards body to try and make sure that the right standards for recording information are coming in to health and social care records over the next few years.

Sam: How long have you been doing that for?

Howard: I've been involved in health informatics for a good 20, 25 years. I’ve just had the opportunity to recently to make accessibility, in other words making things easier for many people as possible, a bit of a mainstay of my work because NHS England and others appreciate that it needs to be there, so they call on me and others to push things along.

Sam: Thank you. What has made you stay working in healthcare?

Howard: Two simple reasons: one is, health and social care should be exemplary. And should set the standard. No other sector, despite what they all say - banking systems, booking travel, all those sort of things - they’re good, but they aren’t accessible for the broadest range of people that people say they are.

But number two, if you don't have reasonable health or support, all other sectors of society are irrelevant. You can’t do them. So everything is predicated, founded upon health – health and social care. Everything else fails. And until we get that right, all this mucking about in other sectors of society is pretty irrelevant. Get healthcare right, and if you are - you’re making a benefit to all the other sectors of society.

Sam: What keeps you going?

Howard: I’m not really sure what keeps me going, except the fact that if I can be up there and help other people and fly the flag which most people aren’t doing, then it’s my responsibility to do that.

I was at a conference - a workshop - on housing provision, here in Sevenoaks, Otford being close by. And there was the local government Minister for Housing, who is also the local government Minister [with] responsibility for adult social care.

So said to him, ‘do you know about the Accessible Information Standard?’

He said, ‘the what?’

And now he does. And that was me getting the plug in and pressure in at ministerial level, just by being there. Nothing to do with being an academic of City or Edinburgh, or anyone else. It was being out the fighting, to certain extent, as a local activist.

When I was a sort of academic I was invited to a conference at the 2020 organisation, which are very good. But they invited me to be on the same platform as somebody very senior from Microsoft and the then shadow Secretary of State for Health, Andy Burnham and a senior person from British Computer Society health division.

And I just said, ‘my normal opening to a presentation like this, is the point that I am deaf and blind, so I have more in common with politicians and senior managers in healthcare than I do the patients I represent. I never believed I’d be on the platform with exactly those people that I was aiming that joke at in the first place.’

It was truly remarkable. But that's why I stay in health and in particular the IT field, because you get out there you can lobby, you are more than just an academic - you are a champion, you are a blind visionary, a deaf listener and a patient, patient champion and a strong activist. And you can get your messages through.

Sam: What one piece of advice would you give a young professional who’s starting out on their career, about how to retain their values, or how to stay human, in an increasingly stressed work environment?

Howard: Believe in yourself. Listen to others. Do not be overwhelmed by all the negative stuff that is going out. But have faith in yourself and follow - follow your goals and your beliefs - don't be chaperoned along routes that you don’t agree with.

Keep your head up. Keep smiling and also, you may be on the way up and doing well – but do not offend anyone at whatever level, because sooner or later you will be coming back down again and you will be meeting the same people, so you better be nice to them!

Sam: Very sound advice. Knowing what you know now, if you could, what one piece of advice would you give yourself, if you were starting out on your career again?

Howard: I would have taken more effort into trying to get on top of the technology that I have - learnt to programme it better, to use it better.

I would have tried to develop a stronger sense of self-confidence. Not being blasé, over-the-top arrogant, but being at least being happy in my own skin rather feeling negative or minimal compared to the rest of society. And I just say, stop worrying quite as much as I do. Things become far more difficult if you worry too much. I worry a lot, which means I stop doing the work that I need to do because I am too busy worrying instead of getting on with it.

And more often than not on the other side everything worked out fine and I didn't realise why I worried in the first place, but if I could stop worrying in the beginning, I could get there much more quickly and I wouldn't have suffered heart problems and everything else as a result of being stupid.

Sam: Perhaps you’re little bit hard on yourself?

Howard: Yeah, well, I’ve got to do it because I don't want anyone else having the credit.

Sam: What have you had to work hardest at, to be a success at your job?

Howard: Timekeeping. It’s actually I think a good answer, because this is the problem with people doing PhDs or writing novels, or doing anything that you take passionately, you want it to be perfect, so you put far more time and effort into it than you need to. Whatever that might be, it might just be a simple report, but things like PhD or presentation at some big gathering you want it to be perfect so you put an inordinate amount of time and effort into it. Often for no real additional benefit. So timekeeping and sort of, don’t try to do everything. Be a bit more sensible and it will probably be fine.

Sam: How difficult has that been for you?

Howard: Very difficult – it’s a flippant answer and it’s a sensible answer.

It means that you try too hard where as you’re wasting some time in trying to make something perfect, it doesn’t need to be anyway and probably couldn’t be, when you can put that effort into something else.

The flippant answer was when I was working at UCL and come out at the end of my research fellow contract, I was invited to go on any personal development course I wanted to get me ready for my next job – fine. I applied for a time management course. I got an email or phone call back saying ‘sorry, you can’t go on that course, its fully booked, you’re too late.’

‘That is ridiculous. That proves that I should be on the course in the first place. Throw a few people out and get me on this course’.

They wouldn’t bend in the rules for me, even though I had a cast iron argument!

Sam: And what’s helped you?

Howard: Well, in the end you realise that it’s not going to be quite as difficult as you think. And what you’ve done is probably – it’s good enough.

But you also, whether you’re giving a presentation or you’re attending an interview or doing anything - there comes a point where you know, well there’s not much more I can do, I’ll just have to rely on a wing and a prayer or the fact that I’ve done enough preparation that I can now.

It’s the lap of the gods. And I take it from there instead of trying to do everything all day, every day, to be – to try and reach perfection.