Interview with Professor Mark Kearney, Dean of the School of Medicine

Professor Mark Kearney is the British Heart Foundation (BHF) Professor of Cardiovascular and Diabetes research at the University of Leeds and is a clinical cardiologist with an interest in heart failure.

Professor Mark Kearney is also on the research committee of Diabetes UK, and has been involved with numerous project grants in the field of cardiovascular research.

Examples include a Research Fellowship on the effects of insulin-like growth factor binding protein on the development of atherosclerosis, and another study which examined the effects of anti-inflammatory agents on endothelial function in obesity.

With an estimated 415 million people living with diabetes in the world and 3.5 million in the UK, Professor Mark Kearney and his team are currently leading cutting-edge research on the link between insulin and IGF-1 signalling in blood vessels to discover new treatments for the cardiovascular complications of type-2 diabetes.

We did a bit of research about you and found all your BHF videos. We were particularly interested in that you graduated from Leeds. Could you talk to us about your experience of medical school here in the 80s and how you think things have changed now that you’re back here as dean?

I still remember my first day at Leeds University medical school and walking through the Worsley building. It’s not much different now on level 7 apart from where the café is, there used to be a pool table. I spent many hours of time playing pool with friends. I started in 1984 when there were only 100 students in the year, whereas now there are around 270 per year. It was a much smaller group so you knew everyone. I still see a lot of people from my year. The first person I met in medical school, I was best man at his wedding and actually the second person I met, I was best man at his wedding too! I think the good thing about Leeds is that it draws and glues everyone together. It really is a great medical school.

Would you mind telling us about the type of medical student you were? For example, In every year we have the party animals, the keen ones who already know what specialty they want to do etc.

Which one do you think I was?

I think you were a mixture: very determined given your list of accolades, but because you seem so down-to-earth it gives the impression that you’ve definitely been where we are, and enjoyed yourself.

I think I was definitely a hybrid. I was captain of the medical school football team in years 3&4. I lived with the captain and the treasurer of the medics rugby team and my friends were all into football and rugby so you can imagine the sort of person I was! But then when it came to exam time I was very focussed.

Moving on to your career in cardiology, is that something you ‘always’ wanted to do or did it develop throughout your training?

When I first came to medical school, I thought I would be a GP. Then when I worked on the wards I became interested in general medicine. Then I worked in elderly medicine and really liked that too. What’s interesting is that I left medicine for the elderly to go into cardiology, but now cardiology like a lot of medical specialties has a high case load of older people. I decided to do cardiology because I thought it was very interesting. I wasn’t interested in research until I did a research job, and that’s really where I found it fascinating. Research is my passion it’s not like a job. I have a big research group funded by The British Heart Foundation here in Leeds. If you asked me when I was at medical school if I would be Dean I would have laughed and if you had asked my friends then they would have definitelylaughed!

How did the opportunity of becoming Dean arise?

It just happened really, I think it’s a sign of getting older. As a junior doctor I did some research in Nottingham and then I had opportunity to teach at Kings College London and came back to Leeds as a professor and the leadership roles seemed to just pop up.

We are very interested to talk to you about the Medicine Redefinedproject. Could you talk to us about the developments you’ve made with that?

There are lots of leaders of the project, not just me, my colleague Gillian Neild came up with the title. The idea behind it is that we wanted to find out everyone’s thoughts on the School, the good things, the bad things, what we need to change. In the Leeds Teaching Hospitals NHS Trust, they have ‘the Leeds Way’ crafted from feedback from their staff on what the defining values of the Leeds hospitals should be. I was inspired by that and so I commissioned the same people from that scheme to help with Medicine Redefined.

It was interesting to see what people saw as important and now we are going to start delivering change based on what people want. One of the things that Medicine Redefined is told us is that our focus on educating people to be brilliant doctors, brilliant physician associates, brilliant cardiac physiologists, brilliant radiographers and brilliant audiologists is something we are all proud of. I want to make it so everyone knows that health care professionals from the University of Leeds are ‘special’.

What are your major plans to put Medicine Redefined into action?

We have a good team which we are currently looking to grow and get more people to buy into the idea of progressing as a School. I think when you come into a new job, it’s good to start by listening. People very rarely like being told what to do but if they tell you what to do, that’s much better. So that’s what I want our staff to do.

We have also changed the leadership structure over the past few months. We have appointed Associate Deans in different areas. We now have an Associate Dean at St James’s and Chapel Allerton Hospitals — Professor David Jayne — this is really important to us because even though these hospitals are only three miles away, we don’t want them to feel 300 miles away for staff working there. We’ve got an Associate Dean for student education — Professor Laura Stroud, and an Associate Dean for Applied Health research — Professor Julia Brown. We’ve also got brilliant Institute Directors, so altogether we’ve got a new team that will support the running of our School. I also want our students to be fully involved, so I meet with students from MSRC and MedSoc every month.

When I researched Medicine Redefined, one of the goals listed is developing student’s resilience and therefore managing stress as a doctor. As mental health problems are still very common in medical school, what things do you plan put in place to improve this?

We’ve got someone who’s a head of student well-being — Dr Jonathan Darling, with whom we are talking to about new plans. We want to make it known that asking for support is something we encourage. Mental health is something that was never mentioned or considered when I was a medical student but I think it is really important because the stresses of a junior doctor and medical students are very different now.

What do you think are those differences between now and then?

I think that there’s no doubt that junior doctors now are busier than we were, the new junior doctors’ contracts changed the working hours and so it is an intense workload over a longer period of time, the expectations of patients and their families are different. Patients are living much longer, and they’ve got multiple comorbidities which are very important. People don’t just come in with a heart attack. They often have diabetes, hypertension, renal failure are often perhaps caring for their spouse who’s also may have long term conditions.

The admissions process is classically very hard for medicine. With more people applying it must be very rigorous. Do you think that with our current admissions policy of having to fulfil all the criteria which essentially offers places to the perfectionists and workaholics, as a school we are maintaining certain traits which can lead to mental health issues?

I think that’s a really good point but I don’t know the answer to that. I remember my application to Medical School I sat on a little fireside rug in my living room filled in my (UCCA) application form, in pencil first and then went over it with a pen. I sent it off and that was it. I went for a look around Leeds, Manchester and Sheffield. Unlike many students now I didn’t play a musical instrument at Grade 9. I didn’t do work experience in a hospital or GP practice. I didn’t have 9A*s at GCSE and 3 As at A-level. These expectations are massive and I think it’s a real challenge. It’s a given that you need to be brainy to be a doctor, but if I look at the people who I have really admired in my career — the qualities of teamwork, leadership and empathy are just as important and probably more so. I think these are really prominent in the Leeds junior doctors I meet in my clinic and on the wards — and are what makes Leeds doctors special.

You said there was about 100 people in your year group and now it’s gone up to 270, do you think this is in line with the strain on the NHS?

We actually need more doctors now. The way medicine has developed requires multiple different specialties to come together and work as a team, so we need more people working together in the ‘medical team’.

As medical students we feel after we graduate we are expected to be all-rounded doctors who have knowledge about every condition, what do you think about that?

You are never the finished article, the minute you start thinking you are is when you should stop. I have been a doctor for 30 years now, and I still ask for advice, discuss patients and read up about different conditions. You should always ask when you are unsure about something, particularly when you first start your job.

We know you are interested in cardiovascular research, what projects are you working on at the moment?

I am a British Heart Foundation Professor of Cardiovascular and Diabetes Research. In 10 years-time, half a billion people will suffer from diabetes. If you have diabetes, it increases your risk of having a heart attack similar to a person who is 10 years older than you. We still do not know exactly why diabetes does this which is what our research is trying to find out.

Speaking of research, do you want to talk about the research partnerships and innovations that the medical school gets involved with?

Our biggest partner for cardiovascular research is the British Heart Foundation, where we have a lot of people funded by the BHF including PhD students. In terms of other specialties Leeds is world-leading in areas such as clinical trials, improving cancer outcomes, frailty and musculosketal disease.

What advice would you give to medical students who are looking for research opportunities?

Doing an intercalated BSc helps. I did not get the opportunity to do that however it is something I recommend. Also, try and network with doctors you see on the wards and ask them about any audits or research they work with. I encourage anyone to do medical research as it is a brilliant and rewarding career.

What do you think makes Leeds graduates special doctors?

I think what is unique about Leeds graduates is how they are taught to work with other team members from the start and from day one on the wards they are confident, caring and ready to go.

As medical students we face the fear of making mistakes when we are junior doctors, what can you tell us about that?

One thing I will guarantee is you will make mistakes as a doctor. We all make mistakes as doctors, that is why we need to support each other. This is why you need to have a network of good friends and family to support you. You should always be honest about your mistakes, talk to the patient and their family about it who will be more understanding then.

You have a lot of academic and clinical commitments, so what is a typical day for you?

Sadly my alarm goes off at 5:45am, I get to work around 7:30am when I meet the Director of the Leeds Institute of Cardiovascular and Metabolic Medicine who is my boss. I then go on the computer in my office to finish off any work, and later in the day have meetings with Yasmin my PA and members of my team. My day varies as I often have research grants and papers to work on, and I of course have you guys (the medical students) to look after. I also have my heart failure clinic every Wednesday morning. I like to go cycling and to exercise but sadly can’t play football anymore.

Further information

This is a feature piece from our faculty magazine: Medicine Matters, for more articles, interviews and stories read more here.

For interview requests please contact Simon Moore, University of Leeds press officer, on +44 (0)113 34 38059 and