Edward Davies: Bringing the mountain to the managers

Edward DaviesThe annual NHS Confederation shindig was set to be the usual trawl through the good, the bad and the really pretty mediocre of the NHS, when something rather different caught my eye.

In between a couple of lectures on maximising your flipchart usage in a clinical environment and the annual “God I love you all” address from some commander in chief sat something a little different – Joe Simpson.

The name was slightly familiar but I couldn’t quite place it. Was he some erstwhile chief executive or retired megalith of the NHS? Not exactly.

Joe Simpson is the mountaineer and subject of BAFTA winning documentary Touching the Void. His appearance at a conference on the NHS was something of a surprise, unless the Department of Health is planning some spectacularly radical restructuring, but a not altogether unwelcome one.

We were promised a talk on planning, strategy, teamwork, motivation and half a dozen other phrases that managers never tire of, but what we got was a Boy’s Own hero.

Half way up a mountain, lying in a crevasse, with a badly broken leg, miles from base camp and left for dead, Simpson told his story of the epic struggle back to his climbing companions in the valley below. For the full account you’ll need to buy the film of the book of the speech, but it was gripping stuff.

From a medical point of view I suppose there was a nasty fracture and some statistics on hypothermia but any generic message of leadership, medical or otherwise, was lost amid the audible awe of the audience.

After an hour or so he was ushered off by zealous time keepers and the main event came on – David Nicholson, the chief executive of the NHS, no less.

I have no idea what he said and nor did many other people. It was probably brilliant, but by this stage I was hanging off an Alpine glacier with only a pen-knife and lucrative speaking tour to save me.

There is probably a learning point or at least a moral in all this, but if nothing else it was a timely reminder of a world that exists outside of highbrow health policy debate.

Edward Davies is the editor of BMJ Careers