Friday 20 September 2019

Ex-HSE boss's PhD studies... in leadership

The subject of Tony O'Brien's research is ironic, but he leaves his role of director general with other opportunities, writes Maeve Sheehan

Tony O'Brien, Director General of the Health Service Executive. Photo: Niall Carson/PA
Tony O'Brien, Director General of the Health Service Executive. Photo: Niall Carson/PA

Tony O'Brien leaves the most demanding role in the public sector apparently having started a PhD on team leadership in the health service.

According to University College Dublin's website, the former director general is a "part-time student" at the School of Nursing, Midwifery and Health Systems. His thesis is "How does collective leadership training and development impact on team performance", supervised by Professor Eilish McAuliffe.

He is listed as a member of the "research team" on a study programme that focuses on exactly the sort of leadership issues that surfaced in the CervicalCheck crisis.

"There is a growing body of evidence of how poor leadership has contributed to system failures that have resulted in a range of errors from misdiagnoses to failure to recognise and respond to patient deterioration," reads the project description of the Collective Leadership and Safety Cultures programme.

The research is "based on the premise that healthcare is delivered through teamwork and teams should share responsibility and accountability for quality and patient safety".

Ironic then, that Mr O'Brien's refusal to take full responsibility was one of the biggest factors that drove him to an early departure as HSE director general.

"I did not personally make that cock-up so I cannot take full responsibility for it," he told the Oireachtas Health Committee 10 days ago.

Mr O'Brien's interest in leadership is laudable and taking on an arduous programme of academic research to find ways of improving the health service and patient safety even more so. Mr O'Brien has made no secret of his part-time PhD studies and has included it in some of his recent CVs.

It was strange the HSE should have been less than forthcoming about the academic interests of their former director general. We first heard last weekend that Mr O'Brien was studying part-time for a masters' degree - erroneously as it turned out. It was perhaps a minor detail in a major story about botched internal communications catastrophically undermining trust in the cervical screening programme. It paled into insignificance compared with the stories told by Vicky Phelan, Emma Mhic Mhathuna and Irene Teap's widower, Stephen - each of whom forced a health system that put its reputation first to see their faces, to hear the names of their children, to feel their anger and pain.

But we thought it was worth sending some questions to the HSE's under-fire but unfailingly courteous press office. Did he have to take days off from running the country's most crisis-prone organisation? Did he have study leave arrangements? First, and most importantly, was it true? No. The HSE informed us Mr O'Brien was a teacher of students on an MA programme, taking five half-day seminars a year. He was not remunerated. "Notwithstanding this he sought and received ministerial consent at the time of his appointment to continue doing so," the HSE response said. It also stated Mr O'Brien "is not currently engaged in any programme of further study".

That was the end of that, we thought. Until we learned Mr O'Brien was listed as a part-time PhD student at UCD. Maybe he had dropped out of the PhD programme? We submitted more questions on Friday. The response was brief: "Tony O'Brien is no longer in the employ of the HSE."

Mr O'Brien leaves a thankless job. He was appointed to wind down the HSE, by then health minister James Reilly, dismantled the board and governance structures. The HSE was left swinging in the wind for years, while politicians vacillated.

He departs with many interests. He is vice-president of the Institute of Public Administration, a council member of the Irish Management Institute and is a member of the Institute of Directors. His studies will doubtless open other avenues. His place of study is part of the Dublin Academic Medical Centre, chaired by entrepreneur Thomas Lynch, who invited him onto the board of Evofem Biosciences, a US-based pharma company, a role the busy Mr O'Brien took up in January. When one door closes…

Sunday Independent

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