Previous 'Meet the member's

Look back on our previous editions of 'Meet the Member', where we introduce a member working in Northern Ireland. 

It’s been quite an exciting first few weeks for Dr Liz Dawson in her role as a POA Consultant in the Southern Trust’s Gillis Memory Centre. Sitting at her desk on a Friday morning, Liz can finally reflect on a long journey that has seen her move from the role of Specialty Doctor to Consultant. However, there is a lot more to Dr Dawson than just her clinical role.

Liz has been Chair of RCPsych NI’s SAS Committee since 2016, as well as a College Assessor and Mentor.   In July, she will assume the role of RCPsych NI’s Finance Officer. Whilst, previously, in the Northern Trust, she was the SAS Lead, together with Foundation Educational Supervisor.  And, let’s not forget, in November last year she received the ultimate accolade from her peers when she was awarded UK SAS Doctor of the Year by the College in Prescot Street.  

As ever, Liz is affable, unassuming and willing to talk when we caught up with her on Friday morning.  Looking back on her first weeks as a Consultant, she is upbeat. 

“It’s been excellent so far,” she said.  “The staff have been more than welcoming – although the fact that we are all wearing masks can make identifying new colleagues quite challenging, I must admit. I have both Dr Chris Southwell and Dr Lauren Megahey working with me and I have known them for a long time, so I do feel very comfortable.”

L Dawson

Dr Dawson feels that the change in role has presented her with a valuable development opportunity.  

“The Consultant post is something that I have been waiting to embrace,” said Liz. “I consider myself to be enthusiastic and this position will enable me to expand on my interests, particularly in quality improvement, which is my passion.”

Previously, Liz had worked as a Specialty Doctor in the Northern Trust for eight years.  Hailing from Ballymoney, County Antrim, Liz finished her medical degree at Queen’s in 2007 and then completed her Core Training in psychiatry.  Her anticipated path through Higher Training was shortened though when family circumstances changed. 

“Both my parents had become unwell and I assumed caring responsibilities for them,” she said. "When they passed away, in truth, my heart wasn’t into going back to finishing Higher Training. At that time, I needed to find employment and a specialty position came up in the Northern Trust, so I took that opportunity and have no regrets.”

During that period, Liz’s CV was enhanced greatly when she took an interest in the local College and was elected Chair of the SAS Committee. Throughout that period, her work has been characterised with a desire for improving recognition for SAS doctors, promoting parity of opportunity and career progression.  

“I really enjoyed my time as Chair of the SAS committee and the support I received from my peers was fantastic, as were the staff in Clifton House and Dr Gerry Lynch. It enabled me to be less insular and to immerse myself in policy and organisational matters, both locally and at a UK level, having served on the Central College’s SAS Committee. I found this period to be an excellent learning curve, which enabled me to think in more strategic and structural terms, to learn about new initiatives and to be more proactive.”

Liz retained a desire to move onwards and took the decision three-years ago to enrol in the Certificate of Eligibility for Specialist Registration (CESR).

Liz 2

CESR is an alternative route to specialist registration. It is sometimes utilised by experienced SAS doctors who wish to become Consultants but cannot re-enter Higher Training for a variety of reasons.  Undertaking the CESR route enables a SAS doctor to remain in their current employment whilst gathering extensive evidence to match the GMC Specialty Specific Guidance and the College's Higher Training curriculum.

“There is no doubt that the CESR process is very tough and it requires a high-degree of energy and self-direction. For almost three years, I found that my evenings were not my own, given the amount of administrative and background work that was required. When I finally got the news that I have been awarded the certificate, I was relived but also quite relaxed as I knew I had put in so much effort.”

Asked if she had any advice for her peers thinking of going down the CESR route, Liz points out that other options exist.  “The choice is always there to finish Higher Training, and this can be intimidating, but it is more structured. I would say speak to senior colleagues and take their advice as the time and effort required to complete CSER can, at times, be burdensome.”   

Taking advice from colleagues is something that Liz has always sought throughout her career, but would she single out anyone who has been her role model? “There really has been too many people who have inspired me along my journey, and it would be unfair to single anybody out. I have though taken an active interest in the history of psychiatry and Elizabeth Kubler, the Swiss-American psychiatrist, is a person who I have learned from and find inspirational.

"She was a pioneer in near-death studies and wrote the ground-breaking book ‘On Death and Dying’, which outlined her theory of the five stages of grief. She left home at 16 and was a hospital volunteer in World War Two before entering medical school.  I think she is a fascinating character given that her background, like my own, was quite humble.

“Elizabeth Kubler achieved so much, and I too am very thankful for what I have achieved so far. Medicine was the profession I wanted to enter from an early age, and I am proud to say that I was the first member of my family to go to university.”

On the current crisis, Liz feels that there are challenges for medicine and psychiatry that will change the way in which care is delivered. “Families are having to deal with difficult situations, particularly with social isolation and the bereavement process.  The social norms that we had become acclimatised to are changing with technology replacing face-to-face interaction to some extent.

“The role of the voluntary sector has also become increasingly important for the older population in terms of managing social isolation. As part of my role, I continue to work along with organisations such as the Alzheimer’s Society and Age NI to provide public education and to proactively gain feedback about how to best improve our services."

Despite the current challenges, Liz still finds her role rewarding, particularly when she can help individuals and families in times of crisis.  “Sadly, there is no cure at present for dementia, but we have to remain optimistic," said Liz.

“I find it so pleasing when I, personally, am able to improve the quality of life for sufferers, both for them and their families. I feel passionate about medicine and psychiatry and it is very satisfying when you see that you can make a difference for patients, families and colleagues alike.”

Well, Colleagues, my time as Chair of RCPsych NI draws to a close. 

The proverbial pipe, slippers and a warm fireside beckon after what has been a whirlwind four years at the helm of the College. I must say, though, that it has been an absolute pleasure to serve the membership through what has been, for me, personally, a very enriching experience.

There have been many highlights and challenges along the way, but I would not have been able to carry out this role without the collective support of the membership. I remain indebted to so many of my colleagues who have played their part since 2016. I do intend to continue with some College activities over the next period (subject, of course, to the direction of the Chair, the Devolved Council and our newly formed Senior Leadership Team) so you haven’t got rid of me completely just yet.

The position of Chair came along at a very convenient time. I had taken retirement from the Northern Trust and it seemed that this was the opportunity I was looking for, given my previous clinical and administrative roles. I was truly honoured when I was elected by my peers, but it was only when I assumed office that the wide and varied extent of the role became apparent.

G21

It would be remiss of me not to mention the generous support I received from all the staff in Clifton House over the years, who on every occasion were prepared to go that extra mile.  Barry, Thomas and Emma have been a fantastic support and are a great asset to the College here. I would also like to pay tribute to Nora McNairney, who gave great service to the College over many years before leaving to seek a new challenge about half way through my term. She was an invaluable support to me during the early part of my time in office.

One of our earliest successes came in June 2016 when Lord Nigel Crisp came to Belfast to launch the report of the Commission on Acute Adult Psychiatric Care. 

That report flagged up the major shortfall in crisis and home treatment teams, as well as a lack of provision for people with eating disorders, personality problems and perennial mental illnesses.

Northern Ireland, sadly, has the highest rate of suicide across the UK, but the Commission found that services were badly underfunded. That was a very prominent event that helped set the agenda for the following four years.

A thread that has run through my time as Chair has been the Mental Capacity Act (Northern Ireland) 2016.  This was an example of ‘fusion’ legislation in which impairment of decision-making capacity and the best interests of the patient became the primary criteria to be used when making decisions across health and social care.

The implementation of the Act was hindered by the dissolution of Stormont in 2017. However, we felt that the role of psychiatry was fundamental in making the legislation work, the establishment of the College Working Group was much needed to enable us as clinicians to ensure that the Code of Practice would be workable.  This is important work which will need to continue.

My four years has also seen the bedding in of RCPsych NI as a devolved nation within the College. This has been a long process and thankfully we are now ready to embrace this opportunity through the adoption of the revised governance structures by the Devolved Council at its meeting on 17 June. Given the implications of devolved nation status, the College has become more strategic in its thinking and that process, in conjunction with the members, is underway.

Decision-making will be streamlined, and we will become more focussed in getting our messages across through a media strategy and at departmental level. 

We held many varied and well-attended events throughout my time as Chair. In March 2018, we attracted almost 230 delegates to the Belfast Waterfront Hall for our spring conference which considered the Mental Capacity Act. 

That event crossed all branches of practice and was a prime example of RCPsych NI showing leadership in setting the agenda at the highest level. 

Last May, I was delighted to co-host the first-ever joint conference with the Trent Division, while another highlight was Belfast hosting the UK CAP conference in September 2019.  I know that there was a lot of work involved in delivering these events and, again, staff should really be commended for their dedication.   

Enhancing relationships with the College of Psychiatrists of Ireland has also been a key objective throughout my term. That process began in November 2016 at the joint conference in County Cavan and culminated with the excellent two-day event in Titanic Belfast in November last year.  That conference attracted over 300 delegates to Belfast and was a superb example of joint working and has created a benchmark for both Colleges to emulate in future years.    

Sadly, it seems that the College tenancy at Clifton House is coming to an end. All members will agree that they were afforded a special welcome by staff every time they visited. The Trustees of Clifton House have plans to expand the services offered in the building and this has impacted on our ‘cosy spot’ in the attic.  

Going forward, it will be vital that the sense of collegiality we were able to nurture in Clifton House is maintained, as and when new premises are identified. It was our ‘home from home’ and, like me, members will be sad that this resource will be lost. 

My final few months as Chair have been over-shadowed, of course, by the Covid-19 epidemic. As clinicians, this has been a testing period, but it has also shown how resilient we can be in the face of a challenge. One of the main outcomes has been that the College has become virtual almost overnight, which has had its advantages with excellent attendances at our online meetings. We can only hope that some sense of normality returns in the near future, but the College will continue to ensure that services are maintained to the highest level. 

In summing up, there are just too many people I wish to thank, and it would be unfair to single anyone out. Everybody has played their part over the past four years, but I would pass on my best wishes to Dr Richard Wilson as he prepares to take hold of the reins. 

Richard’s leadership of the CAP faculty has left him in a perfect position to take the College forward. He will bring a fresh sense of gusto to the role of Chair and I wish him well.

Finally, as I sign off, I would thank members for their generosity in contributing towards the gifts to mark my leaving. The video montage which was shown at the end of the Council meeting on 17 June was a lovely gesture.  

My appreciation is heart-felt and it is with a sense of deep gratitude and pride that I sign-off as your Chair for the last time.

May I wish each and every one of you every success in the future.

Yours sincerely,

Gerry