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Ripples of shock reverberated throughout the medical world here and in Britain as the news of Aidan’s sudden passing spread. Medical school classmates who just months earlier had shared a joyous 30th class reunion with him simply could not believe it when they heard that Aidan had passed away peacefully at his home in Leicester, aged just 57.
A truly unique individual who had the self-belief to move beyond the usual well-trodden professional pathways, Aidan was born in Dublin, the eldest of six children. He completed his secondary education at Templeogue College before testing a possible vocation with a year spent in a seminary. He then joined what would become the 1984 graduating class in Trinity College Dublin’s Medical School.
His wife Carol Furlong, from Blackrock, was a fellow classmate. Initially travelling with her to the UK for House jobs with the intention of returning home, he went on to train in obstetrics and gynaecology at the Rotunda Hospital and Leicester Royal Infirmary.
A consultant appointment at Leicester was quickly followed by a Professorship of Foetal and Maternal Medicine, posts he held from 1997 to 2003. In 1999, he was appointed head of the NHS clinical governance support team, the beginning of a remarkable journey from the clinical coalface to the front line of tackling dysfunctional healthcare. From then until 2006, he held a number of high-profile national roles, including deputy CMO to Sir Liam Donaldson (2003-2005), and Director of Clinical Governance for the NHS.
Becoming a little frustrated in the confines of the civil service, he tested the waters of the private sector as head of Elision Health Ltd, an innovative training establishment where surgical and multi-disciplinary teams could develop their skills. He turned down an offer to become Chief Executive of the fledgling HSE in 2004.
His next job was as Director of Education at University College London Hospital (UCLH), where he continued to explore innovative solutions to the challenges of leadership in healthcare. Homeless people often frequent hospital emergency departments, with those under the influence posing a particular challenge for clinical staff. But at UCLH, Aidan saw beyond their problematic behaviour, suggesting doctors and nurses focus on the person as an individual in pain.
When a homeless patient died outside UCLH after being thrown out for “causing trouble,” he created a pathway team in the hospital, recruiting a specialist GP and nurse. They worked across the wards providing humane, personalised care. The programme’s effectiveness led to the creation of the national charity Pathway, which now has 10 teams in 10 hospitals around the UK.
Ian Kennedy, a friend and former Chairman of the Healthcare Commission, said of Aidan that he “spoke truth to power”. Kennedy told the BMJ that Aidan was skilled in challenging senior doctors and managers whenever he came across poor teamwork, poor communication or poor outcomes. “He would say, ‘I’m holding up the mirror, if you don’t like it, it’s for you to do something about’. Equally, he was very good at praising where praise was due. People really responded to him and it would make them go the extra mile for patients.”
He himself wrote that, at its core, leadership was a purely moral and emotional activity, defined by values and integrity and requiring the ability to engage and inspire. Following a visit to the military hospital at Camp Bastion in Afghanistan, in 2010, he established the NHS Staff College, a senior leadership development programme delivered in conjunction with the military. It draws on military selection and assessment techniques to offer personally-challenging multidisciplinary programmes.
Considered by many as the best public speaker they had heard, to witness him engaging with a meeting was a sight to behold. His compassion, openness and interest in people’s personal stories transformed an audience and was a privilege to experience. His commitment to patient advocacy is summed up in a favourite phrase: “What we permit, we promote.”
At the time of his death, Aidan was Director of Well North, a health partnership working to reduce health inequalities across the North of England.
Aidan Halligan is survived by his wife, Dr Carol Furlong, children Molly, Rebecca and Daisy, his mother, Maureen, brothers Peter and Karl and sisters Ursula, Maurita and Noirín.