Meet the Midlands medic facing up to his greatest career challenge

From humble beginings, Professor Kiran Patel has become a man respected across the NHS and among the team fighting coronavirus.

Professor Kiran Patel
Professor Kiran Patel

He can’t drag himself away from the football when the interview starts. “Shall we do this in 20 minutes?” he asks, as his beloved Baggies go 2-0 down to Fulham.

But then football is one of the ways that Professor Kiran Patel keeps his feet on the ground.

As a man responsible for the health of many thousands of people, it’s a way of relieving the pressure. Covid-19 has provided him with the greatest challenges of a remarkable 30-year career.

Professor Patel is influential in the world of health. His work affects the NHS covering the West Midlands. He has been medical director for West Mercia, overseeing care in Shropshire, and is now the man in charge of one of the region’s biggest hospitals.

He has been frontline during Covid-19, marshalling NHS staff and resources to keep people alive. He’s seen the effects that Covid-19 has had not just on patients and families but also on his team.

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Prof Patel was born in West Bromwich on a workaday housing estate. Surrounded by loving parents and siblings, he attended Menzies High School and Sixth Form, now The Pheonix Collegiate, in Clarkes Lane. It was during those years that he developed his passion for medicine, although he didn’t imagine his ambitions would be realised. Who does?

“It was probably in sixth form at Menzies High School that I started to think seriously about it. As I was growing up in West Brom, I thought it was normal to have people in their 50s and 60s dying. I saw a lot of premature death around me. Then I suddenly started realising it wasn’t normal, people were dying because we had poorer health outcomes in the Black Country. I started reading a bit more about health care in general and realising that people from deprived communities didn’t have as good outcomes. They didn’t live as long.”

He realised he could make a difference and that medicine would provide him with a role in life. He wanted to improve the health of the local populous, to be a positive change.

He blazed a trail through his A levels, scoring straight As, while also serving as pupil governor. He secured a place at King’s College, Cambridge, where his studies began. A talented cricketer, he played alongside the soon-to-be England captain Mike Atherton, among others, while also meeting his future wife, Emma, who played for the ladies team.

Studying at Cambridge proved a point. It was abnormal for teenagers from where he grew up to get into Oxbridge.

Confidence

“It was surreal when I first entered that world. But I had an air of confidence, so it wasn’t intimidating or overwhelming. The college I went to was really good, King’s, and had a good intake of state and private sector kids. You either sink, you survive or you excel.”

Prof Patel wanted to excel. He lapped up every opportunity he had and Cambridge was the making of him. At the end of his first year, he secured first class honours.

By 1993, he’d qualified and left Cambridge for a house job in Bristol. Life as a junior doctor was tough and he regularly worked 100-hour weeks. There were spells back in Cambridge, then in Leicester at one of the UK’s busiest A&E units and then back in Bristol as a senior house officer. He completed his PhD in Bristol and continued on the path to becoming a registrar.

By that time, he was married and two of his four children had arrived. A happy, contented life was upset, however, by the death of his beloved father, Chhagan.

“We were driving up to West Bromwich almost every weekend because mum was living alone. One day on the motorway I wondered why I was spending so much time driving. I wanted to combine being a cardiologist with being a son and spending more time with family.”

So he applied for a transfer and moved to the Good Hope Hospital, in Sutton Coldfield, then the QE in Birmingham. Soon, a friend told him about a job in cardiology at Sandwell Hospital and his career had come full circle. He was back in West Bromwich, fulfilling his ambition to provide health care to the people with whom he grew up.

“That was the opportunity to make a difference in the place where I was born. I wanted to contribute to making the cardiology department even better than it was and joined a group of excellent colleagues.”

His parents had both been proud to see him fulfil his own desire and purpose in life. “They came from deprived background. I remember after receiving one of my first pay checks. I got them Sky TV, which had just come out. I got that so they could watch everything. Mum could watch Indian channels on TV and Dad could watch sport.

"It meant something. I wanted to give back.”

Identified

At Sandwell, Dr Patel’s specialism in cardiology enabled him to save lives. He identified with the patients he was seeing; they’d lived in the same streets, attended the same schools.

“It felt natural. I fitted in really well there. There was one day when I’d seen a young mother in her 20s with three kids. She was sent to me partly because she was a smoker. I asked if she’d ever been told to stop smoking and she laughed it off. So I asked her what her priority was in life? She said her kids had got torn school uniforms and she wanted them to have clean, untorn ones.

"So I worked out how much she was spending on cigarettes per year and told her to cut down by three or four a day so that she could afford uniforms with the money she’d saved.”

A year later, the woman sent Prof Patel a thank you card. On it, was a picture of her kids, in gleaming uniforms.

A high-flying medic, Prof Patel was soon part of the West Midlands Strategic Health Authority. He was a key player locally and was asked to become medical director for West Mercia, overseeing care across Shropshire, in addition to Herefordshire and Worcestershire.

He continued his role at Sandwell, fixing the heart of patients from across the wider Midlands region, while combining his duties as regional medical director.

He later became Medical Director at Good Hope Hospital, a clinical leadership position in the Heart of England Trust. He was then approached to become medical director for NHS England, West Midlands, in 2014.

As another NHS reorganisation loomed in 2019, he moved to become Medical Director for the University Hospitals for Coventry and Warwickshire. For the past three months he’s been interim chief executive as his boss, Prof Andy Hardy, has been seconded to the Department of Health nationally to work on the so-called Operation Moonshot.

Dominated

“We did very well during the first wave of Covid-19, so the DH asked Andy to be seconded. It’s great to know Andy had confidence in me to cover his role and step up from being the Deputy Chief Executive for a few months. It’s been an exhausting but massively fulfilling experience.”

Covid-19 has dominated his recent history. Each Monday, he meets new recruits, from consultants to porters, doctors to nurses, and tells them there’s never been a better time to work in the NHS.

“If you glass is half full, this is the best time to serve. We’re never going to see a challenge of this scale again. It’s mentally and physically exhausting but there’s the opportunity to make a difference. At UHCW we are proud and driven to improve the quality of health care and be a major player in the well being of our communities.”

He thinks back to the deprivation he experienced as a kid and realises things can be better.

“I had a really happy upbringing and childhood in a deprived area. Being a child under 10 or under 16, I didn’t realise I was deprived. So while I might have been denied things as a child, all that I remember is a happy childhood with parents who had migrated to this country and worked hard to give their kids a good future.

"For me, that was enormously important because it instilled a work ethic. I don’t feel being born in the Black Country was a route to disadvantage. It was the opposite. It instilled a work ethic and compassion in me. The people from this region contribute massively to society.”

His passion for sport has led him into interesting quarters. He was on call one weekend when he was asked to see the then-Newcastle United manager Joe Kinnear, who came into hospital. It was the beginning of a foray into sports medicine, which has seen him work with most of the Premier League clubs in the region.

Elite

“Suddenly you get asked to see and contribute to the health and welfare of elite athletes. I find it interesting being exposed to elite level football and rugby clubs because it teaches the wider community what really good health and well being is. It is possible for a local kid from a poor background to grow up and become the next Marcus Rashford.

"Good diet, exercise and motivation are the path and you don’t need to lose your morals, either. Marcus Rashford hasn’t forgotten his roots. He’s a great advocate for social mobility.”

As is Prof Patel. He chairs the South Asian Health Foundation and during the pandemic helped publish guidance to reduce the number of deaths in BAME populations.

“The charity is very humbling. As a registrar, I saw a lot of ethnic health inequality so I’ve always been driven to tackle that and to found and chair a charity has been fantastic.”

His family – as well as the Baggies – helps provide a sense of balance; an opportunity to replenish and refresh.

“I always see myself as quite a resilient person but the last nine months in particular has been challenging. I haven’t let Covid-19 get me down. My wife runs a school and so she also worked full on during lockdown, looking after the kids of key workers. Neither of us had much downtime but we supported each other through it.”

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