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Professor Michael Sharpe reflects on his life and work in this Q&A for the British Medical Journal's 'Observations' column.


Reproduced from the BMJ, published 10 August 2016


Michael Sharpe, 62, was researching integrated care and riding a Brompton bike long before either was fashionable. His research has included groundbreaking clinical trials showing how integrating psychiatry and psychology into medical care can improve the lives of patients in neurology, cancer, and medical clinics. More recently he has put these ideas into practice by leading the integration of psychiatrists and psychologists into medical teams at Oxford University Hospitals. He is professor of psychological medicine at Oxford and was the Royal College of Psychiatrists’ “psychiatrist of the year” in 2014.

What was your earliest ambition?

I have no idea. Probably to be a train driver (my Scottish grandfather worked on the railways). But, whatever it was, I certainly don’t remember wanting to be an academic psychiatrist—although, curiously, it does seem to have some similarities to my father’s job as a parson. Many things shape our ambition.

Who has been your biggest inspiration?

Many people and institutions have inspired me: in my academic and professional life, the experience of arriving at Corpus Christi College, Oxford, from my state school was amazing and inspired me with the idea of scholarship. Many consultants at Addenbrooke’s Hospital, where I went on to study clinical medicine, inspired me to fully embrace the privilege of being a physician. And many conversations with patients over many years have continually inspired me with the desire to ease mental suffering in seriously physically ill people.

What was your best career move?

My decision to change from general medicine to psychiatry was difficult: senior medical colleagues sat me down and explained how it would be “a waste of a career.” My move was eventually facilitated by a few supportive words from a senior colleague, who helped me to see it as a development of my training as a physician rather than an abandonment of it. It was a good move.

Who is the person you would most like to thank, and why?

I’d like to thank many people. Most recently, Fiona Caldicott and Paul Brennan of Oxford University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, for supporting and trusting me to integrate psychiatry and psychology into medical care at this large acute trust.

To whom would you most like to apologise?

All of those patients for whom I lacked the courage and understanding to just be with them and stay with them, when they were most distressed.

If you were given £1m what would you spend it on?

I’d set up a centre to help integrate psychiatry into general medical care through research, teaching, and practice.

Where are, or when were, you happiest?

Age 18, sitting in Corpus Christi College’s 16th century library and reading a William James book on psychology, surrounded by creaky bookshelves and musty books, while the balmy summer air and sound of birdsong floated in through the open window. And variations on these ingredients ever since.

What single unheralded change has made the most difference in your field in your lifetime?

The progressive embracing of psychiatry by physician and surgeon colleagues as just another medical specialty, rather than something useless or weird.

What book should every doctor read?

Probably the whole of the Oxford Textbook of Medicine. However, Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal is also an important (and shorter) read.

What poem, song, or passage of prose would you like mourners at your funeral to hear?

A song that they can sing along to.

What is your guiltiest pleasure?

Pleasure shouldn’t be guilty. A herbal gin and tonic with fresh rosemary, drunk outside as the sun sets on a Friday evening, takes some beating.

What television programmes do you like?

I don’t have a TV. However, the now slightly dated Channel 4 hospital comedy Green Wing, watched on DVD, is pure genius. I recommend it.

What is your most treasured possession?

My career and my relationships.

What, if anything, are you doing to reduce your carbon footprint?

Cycling furiously on my Brompton bicycle—although I suspect that even cycling as hard as I can won’t stop climate change.

What personal ambition do you still have?

To see psychiatry regarded as an “ordinary but useful” component in the care of medically ill people.

Summarise your personality in three words

Personality is best judged by others. When a colleague saw me walking the wrong way around an IKEA store he said that this was what he’d expect of me. It was a compliment, I hope.

What is your pet hate?

People seeming not to care about things that matter. Some things do matter.

What would be on the menu for your last supper?

There is a saying that “if you are not at the table you are on the menu,” so I would hope to be at the table.

Do you have any regrets about becoming an academic doctor?

None. What could possibly be better than being a small part of the great traditions of scholarship and medicine?

If you weren’t in your present position what would you be doing instead?

Absolutely no idea.


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