Richard Carthew, MiP’s long-standing rep at NHS Digital, travels to such far-flung places as the Gobi Desert and Chile in pursuit of the breathtaking experience of a total solar eclipse. “You have to be fully in the shadow to see effects like Baily’s Beads and the corona. So it has to be total or it’s not worth it,” he explains. “You go to the weirdest places—it’s like throwing a dart at an atlas to see where you’re going on holiday.”
Richard brings the same whole-hearted commitment to representing members at NHS Digital, which is due to be merged into the NHS England behemoth next year. “I’ve been willing to put my head above the parapet and my criticism hasn’t always been welcome,” he says. “But being a union rep has given me a platform and some degree of protection.”
But Richard prefers to see himself as a “centrist” rather than a table-thumping militant. “My whole strategy is just to make the organisation work well, work well for clinicians and patients, and that means treating staff with respect and engaging with everyone working here,” he says.
The merger plans are “er, disappointing”, he explains, because “they’re not yet engaging, explaining and communicating well enough.”
He blames the NHS’s poor record on change management—despite an abundance of practice—on failures of leadership. Re-organisation has become a “self-perpetuating loop”, he says, that only seems to benefit the most senior leaders. “Rather, they should focus on showing empathy for staff.”
After a PhD in palaeontology and working as a civil servant for three years, Richard joined the NHS as an information analyst at London’s Royal Free Hospital in 1991. “Mrs Thatcher had hacked back on pure research and there were very few academic jobs around,” he recalls. “I had to get a job. I wanted to get married and have a family… [My skills] were around information and quantifying things. If you can quantify evolution and competition in animals from 400 million years ago, you should be able to quantify anything in the NHS.”
After a couple of posts in London mental health trusts, Richard joined the National Casemix Office, working to develop ways of measuring mental health outcomes. The expertise he developed in mental health data led to a role as an adviser to the National Programme for IT, and to Richard joining the team implementing the “RiO” electronic patient record system in London mental health trusts.
Later, working for the London Strategic Health Authority, Richard led the development of a system to monitor vulnerable children in the aftermath of the inquiry into the death of ‘Baby P’. “We developed a technical solution so that, when a child was checked into A&E, staff would know they were subject to safeguarding. We did it in three months … and it worked,” he says.
In his day job now as a delivery manager, he leads on ‘special projects’ – data requests that are “urgent but not routine”. During the pandemic, Richard worked worked with the Office of National Statistics (ONS) and the Home Office to simplify and clarify the way deaths are registered by clinicians. With Covid-19, it’s important to have data on the number of people who die as close as possible to real time, and Richard’s work helped to reduce the time between registering a death and the information appearing on NHS Digital’s system.
Richard has represented London on MiP’s National Committee since 2016, but argues that the union’s structure needs to better represent members in national bodies. “The regional structure doesn’t really work for us. My office happens to be in London, but most NHS Digital staff are outside,” he explains. “And I feel guilty that [working for a national body] I can’t properly represent most NHS staff in London.”
But with the next year certain to be a tumultuous one for NHS Digital and elsewhere, Richard says MiP’s immediate priority is simply to get the basics right. “Let’s just ensure that MiP is there, helping and being kind,” he says.
- If you’re interested in becoming an MiP link member or rep, contact MiP organiser, Rebecca Hall: email@example.com.