Ellie Hothersall is Head of the MBChB programme in the School of Medicine, and Associate Director of Public Health in NHS Tayside. Ellie is originally from Paisley, growing up on the Isle of Lewis, and moved to Broughty Ferry in 2011 when she qualified as a consultant.
Can you tell us about your role at the University? I am the Programme Lead for Medicine, which is a five year programme for medical students. I am also a public health doctor and have recently been on secondment to the NHS to help with the Covid response. It’s been a difficult time for both the NHS and the University and I have been fortunate to be able to make use of my expertise in this way.
What do you do at work? Normally, I work closely with the curriculum leads, clinical skills, our colleagues in the NHS, and the medical school office team to ensure that our students are getting the best possible education as they make their way through medical school. Each day is very varied, covering issues such as student welfare, teaching across the university and healthcare settings, and working with the General Medical Council around regulation and registration. We are also in the midst of a curriculum review so that has taken up a lot of time.
Currently I am working full time with NHS Tayside to support the local response to Covid-19. In particular I have oversight of the testing and contact tracing programmes locally. The way that our local teams have responded to the current situation has been incredible, and I have been so proud to be part of that work.
What gives you satisfaction in your work, what’s the best bit? I hope the students don’t feel too patronised by this, but it is the proudest day of the year when I see this year’s cohort of students graduate, and know that they are going off to be junior doctors with the very best preparation we could offer them. I think Dundee does an amazing job of creating medical graduates who are confident and competent from day one. 2020’s graduation was completely different, of course, and most of our students graduated early in the year to enable them to take up extra roles to assist in responding to the pandemic. I was asked to lead the online celebration we held for them, and it was one of my proudest and most emotional moments.
What challenges do you face and how do you deal with them? Medicine is an incredibly complex and demanding subject, and I think there is still an ingrained belief that people need to suffer in silence rather than seek help or admit to difficulties. The pandemic has highlighted how important it is to be able to look after yourself, in order to be able to look after others, but it can be a difficult message to get across.
In part, that was why I ended up being seconded to the NHS. Until June 2020 I was trying to do both jobs and it was creating an unbearable strain on me personally. I’m immensely grateful to my colleagues in the Medical School for supporting my secondment and allowing me to concentrate my efforts in one place for a while. I know they are doing an excellent job without me.
And the hardest part of what you do? This year has been incredibly hard on our students. I know many were very worried that they wouldn’t get enough clinical exposure, or practice before their exams, and it must be so challenging to cope with that on top of the strains everyone has about health anxieties, lock down and so on. Things often move so fast, and change so quickly that it can be hard to communicate all the complexities to students, and I am sure students can feel things are being done “to” them rather than “with” them. It’s hard to convey properly, but we spend so much time and effort trying to make sure that students are getting what they need, both to complete the course, and to be safe doctors afterwards. We desperately need people to graduate at the right time, to be able to keep supporting the healthcare system in the years to come, and we are absolutely not trying to catch anyone out. When I was a student I felt like the medical school was a faceless organisation, that didn’t care about me at all, and it can be really hard when I hear students still feel like that.
WORKING FROM HOME
How has the current lockdown/work from home situation affected what you do? In many ways I have been lucky because my NHS role has meant I have needed to do some days in the office throughout the whole of the last year. I still work several days a week at home though. My children are semi-autonomous (11 and 13), so they are at home when I am, which can be hard on the wifi!
Have you found working from home to be more or less effective in terms of work delivery and the job that you do? I find on the whole Teams has been great for bringing people together for meetings – attendance at meetings is now normally better than it used to be because people don’t have to travel. That is good for the environment too. On the other hand, staring at a screen all day is very draining, and of course because there’s no travel, there are really no breaks between meetings, so you can sit still pretty much all day – my step count has fallen dramatically, and I really miss my standing desk. I also miss the small talk at coffee and in the corridors. So much of the job is about relationships and it is hard to maintain them like this.
How have the needs and demands of students changed and what are you doing that is notably different from normal in the current situation? I have really enjoyed giving tutorials and lectures online – I have been doing them live rather than pre-recording, because I know that students have a lot of questions about public health at the moment, and I want to be able to respond to them in real time. I have heard the same thing from colleagues around the country. We are finding attendance at our sessions is way up!
Has there been a particular support? There are so many channels of communication these days – email, WhatsApp, Teams, Facebook, Twitter, etc. It is just lovely to know each one has friends and colleagues on it, making it easy to stay in touch with people. If I’m honest, I’m too tired for long conversations these days, but it’s nice to know I can reach people easily when I want to connect.
Is there anything new within the current situation that you hope will continue after we return to campus? Two big things: I think that this situation has helped us to build a sense of community, and of looking after each other. I think we’ve come to understand our role in the bigger picture and I think that is a really valuable lesson.
Also I think that many of the things we are using for online learning are vital to continue – being able to use blended learning was a key part of our curriculum review for medicine, so this has let us get a much clearer idea of how that will work, and how to do it.
Do you miss the campus you work on? I really miss Ninewells. I miss the staff and the environment, and I really miss all the students hanging out outside the lecture theatres. I miss my standing desk – I have a yoga ball to sit on in my King’s Cross office but it’s not the same. I was also really surprised to discover I miss the walk from where I park my car up into the office – who knew you could miss a trek in the cold and wet?
What do you most look forward to doing once you are back on campus? I am looking forward to putting all my plants back on their window sill – they are really crowding my kitchen at the moment!
Campus hotspot? It’s got to be the Union shop in Ninewells – I really miss the bean wrap with chilli cheese!
Someone at the University who inspires you? My colleague Susie Schofield has been inspiration and friend to me ever since I arrived in the city. Her enthusiasm for medical education really fired my own, and all my best decisions have been made with her support ever since. In addition to her key roles in the Centre for Medical Education, she also champions other important issues around inequalities and LGBT rights which I am delighted to support personally and through the institution.
How would you describe the University to someone who doesn’t know it? The University is really a key part of the local community, and the ties both ways are strong and deep. I’ve never worked somewhere that felt more like home.
What do you do outside of work? I have two children, a dog, two cats, two rabbits and four hens. In between those responsibilities, I do some knitting and crocheting. I would love to describe myself as a runner, but anyone who has seen me out knows I am more of a plodder. That said, in January 2020 I completed the polar night half marathon, so I know I am at least a hardy plodder!
Tell us something we don’t know about you? I learned Gaelic at school. I have been trying to practice it more over the various lockdowns with Duolingo, but I find the Oban accent doesn’t match what I am used to – I’m doing better learning Norwegian!
Who would you invite to a dinner party? It would need to be people who like good food but don’t mind a messy house! I’d like a chance to speak to Margaret Atwood – every time I see her interviewed she seems to have a lot of interesting things to say. I met Catherine Calderwood a couple of times while she was Chief Medical Officer, and I bet she has some juicy gossip to share. Lastly I’d invite Geraint Thomas, so my husband had someone to talk to!
And finally, why Dundee? The secret of Dundee is that is has everything you could need in a city, but it’s small enough to feel at home quickly. It’s got a great university, a beach, and lovely people – what more could you want?