Dr Jennifer Dixon, CBE, MBChB, FRCP, FFPH

Doctor of Science

Monday 18 July 2016 at 10.30 am - Orator: Dr Jane Sansom 

Mr Pro Vice-Chancellor

In an interview entitled ‘Jennifer Dixon: Not Shy about Public Health’, in the British Medical Journal in 2014, Jennifer says that her earliest ambition was to play Cleopatra. But given her acknowledgement as being ‘the shyest girl at school’, a leading role on the dramatic stage was perhaps never going to materialise. However, a leading role in influencing health policy in high profile posts over the last 20 years at The King’s Fund, the Nuffield Trust and latterly The Health Foundation clearly illustrate that shyness in childhood does not preclude great achievement as an adult.

Jennifer’s family background, a twin brother and older sister, is unremarkable; but her childhood was at times unsettled – due to her father’s frequent job changes, she attended eight different schools. She sometimes found it hard to ‘fit in’ and learned ‘to be a chameleon’ to make friends. The consequence was the development of her personal resources of resilience and determination.

Jennifer came to Bristol to study medicine. Being in the same cohort of students, my recollection is of an unobtrusive, competent peer. She almost certainly has no idea that her stylish persona, with quiet, understated ability, meant she was secretly admired by many.

At medical school, her interest in politics took the form of her election to the Students’ Union Council for a year as the only ‘independent’ candidate. She recalls ‘unfortunately my main recollection is endless debate as to whether to rename the 'long bar' in the Students’ Union building as the 'Mandela bar' (we did) and collecting Ken Livingstone from Temple Meads station to speak at a debate’.

Her understated future potential was either well hidden, or not yet evident, at Jennifer’s Finals exams in obstetrics and gynaecology.  She recalls a Viva exam with exacting examiners which didn’t go quite as smoothly as she’d hoped. The examiners emerged and addressed the group of four students: to the other students ‘you three students are really good, but you…..’. This event cannot have been too catastrophic as she definitely graduated at the same time as the rest of her year.

Medicine offered stable, secure employment and Jennifer took up junior doctor posts in paediatrics in London. A colleague planted the seed to undertake an MSc in Public Health; in 1989 the professor of paediatric cardiology was incredulous to hear that Jennifer was leaving his department to take up a job that he perceived was all about sewerage systems and head lice. How little did he know?

So, five years after qualifying Jennifer took the risk and followed her instinct to change her career direction.

Rapid change followed: Jennifer completed an MSc in Public Health at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and was then awarded a prestigious Harkness fellowship in New York – the US equivalent of a Rhodes scholarship. This enabled her to study healthcare reform at a national and state level. Jennifer describes her time in this post, surrounded by ‘a devastating concentration of talent’. The non-hierarchical atmosphere was a potent influence on her future leadership style – a self-confessed introvert; reflective, a good listener who creates a ‘high trust’ environment to maximise the potential of the team around her.

Following her PhD, Jennifer worked at the King’s Fund - an English charity that shapes health and social care policy and practice. A paper in the British Medical Journal analysed funding in General Practice at the time, was featured by the BBC and questions asked of the then Secretary of State for Health, Virginia Bottomley, in the House of Commons. Her riposte, a technique favoured by politicians, was to attempt to denigrate the data by claiming that– ‘this was not the best paper the BMJ has ever published’.  

Publishing widely and presenting on NHS policy was evidently not a barrier to Jennifer’s career. She was seconded to the Department of Health from 1998-2000. Whilst her peers at medical school were settling into consultant posts and partnerships in General Practice, Jennifer became policy advisor, and occasional speechwriter to the Chief Executive of the NHS in England, Sir Alan Langlands. This enabled her to gain real insight into the workings of Whitehall and policy influence at a national level.

Alongside her role as Director of Policy at the King’s Fund, Jennifer broadened her skills and experience in being appointed as a non-executive to the Board of the Audit Commission – a national regulator of public finances and then to the Healthcare Commission.

Next Jennifer moved to the Nuffield Trust, an independent foundation dedicated to improving healthcare, where she was appointed as Chief Executive. This post showed just how successful she could be when given the opportunity. Three administrative staff and empty offices were rejuvenated. Jennifer developed a new strategy and business model. The result – a well-respected national and international organisation.  A reputation for rigorous, innovative quantitative work, using ‘big data’ to benefit patients in the NHS.

Jennifer’s work does not shy away from awkward and uncomfortable truths. A particular piece examining healthcare funding across the four home nations highlighted significant differences. This made headline news on Radio 4’s Today programme, and was deemed more significant than a news item about Barack Obama. The content was not well-received in one particular region. Jennifer recalls receiving numerous angry calls to retract the report, with promises to ruin her future career and worse. Her response, in what I am sure was a calm and composed manner was simply to explain that ‘I don’t respond to threats’.

Since 2013, Jennifer has been Chief Executive of The Health Foundation, the second largest health charity in the UK. In the same year she joined the Board of the CQC or Care Quality Commission and was awarded a CBE for services to public health.

A passion, ability and energy that can be truly admired. Jennifer draws on her interest in politics, economics, health services research and medicine to enable her continued interest in the role of the state in healthcare and the sustainability and improvement of the National Health Service. Not only has she published widely in academic journals and issued numerous reports, but she comments frequently in the media about the state of the NHS and writes regularly in the broadsheet press.

Outside of work her pleasures are in the arts – she has always been absorbed by style and design and is especially interested in Russian literature and music. Figurative and landscape oil painting is her personal medium – her most recent achievement being a portrait of her husband, John, also a Bristol graduate and now an academic in Moral Philosophy at University College London. Great happiness and joy also comes in the form of her two daughters, Elise and Liesel. Being disciplined about leaving work on time for her family is a priority.

Whilst clinical medicine may have lost out to public health at a national and international level, the impact that Jennifer has had in modern social healthcare policy is of huge importance. To champion healthcare inequality, particularly for the vulnerable and less fortunate, is key to the well-being of our society and the NHS in particular.

Mr Pro Vice-Chancellor, I present to you Dr Jennifer Dixon as eminently worthy of the degree of Doctor of Science honoris causa.

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