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Trailblazer who saw the future of our hospitals

Obituary

By Laurence White

Visionary, innovative and trailblazer were some of the words used to describe William McKee, the former head of the Belfast Trust, who has died at the age of 66.

As chief executive of the Royal Group of Hospitals, a post he held from 1992-2006, he created the first health trust in Northern Ireland.

Former senior colleague Gerry Carson said Mr McKee recognised how the future of the NHS should look and how hospitals should be organised. The creation of the health trust at the Royal came a year before other trusts were established.

Mr Carson said: “He was careful to explain to staff how he believed the hospital should operate, asking them: ‘How would you like to be treated if you came into any of our hospitals?’”

Mr McKee was also keen to avoid duplication in services as much as possible and was a strong advocate of the establishment of the Cancer Centre at Belfast City Hospital, which would allow treatment there to be complemented by surgery performed at the Royal. He was also a strong advocate of merging the Jubilee maternity unit at Belfast City Hospital with the Royal maternity unit, with the overall objective of having a new women’s and children’s hospital on the Falls Road site.

Mr McKee established a Hospital Council at the Royal Group and ensured that those delivering front-line services outnumbered what he called “the suits” — the management team. That was to ensure that decisions would have to be approved by medical staff.

He understood fully the power of public relations in the world of health politics. He once ordered Mr Carson, head of the hospital’s public relations department, to bring this reporter on a tour of the main Royal Victoria Hospital to see the quite significant decay and lack of maintenance in the building. When that story made front page news he had photocopies presented to delegates, including senior figures in the health and finance departments at Stormont, at a subsequent conference. The ultimate result was a decision to build a new hospital.

William McKee entered the heath service in 1976 and rapidly demonstrated his managerial and leadership abilities. He first came to the Royal as a graduate entrant — his primary degree was from Queen’s University, with a later MBA from Ulster University —  with the aim of getting specialised training on health issues.

His strong belief in the principles of public service meant that whatever Trust or institution he worked for, whatever workplace team he was entrusted with leading, he never wavered in his commitment to the development of a community of leaders with a shared vision of serving the public and constantly to do things in a better way. One of his favourite quotes was: “People need to know you are going to do the right thing in the right way.”

A gifted mentor and communicator, many health service managers in Northern Ireland benefitted from his guidance. His expertise was much in demand across the British Isles and beyond. He served as President of the Institute for Healthcare Managers, the UK professional body of managers in the NHS, worked on a number of international health-related aid projects in Central Europe and was in constant demand as a conference speaker.

He spent six months attached to the health service in Western Australia.  His services to health were recognised when he was awarded the CBE in the 2006 New Year’s honours list.

Once appointed to his various posts as Chief Executive he placed a high priority on communications with staff. At the Royal Hospitals Trust this led to his legendary staff briefings which were never dull, always direct and often the highlight of the working week. Mr McKee recognised the importance of developing good working relationships with health service trade unions and sought to work with them on a partnership basis.

Mr McKee left the Royal in 2006 and the next year led the creation of the Belfast Trust, which amalgamated six former health trusts into a single body. With 20,000 staff and a budget of £1bn, it was the largest healthcare trust in the UK. He stepped down from the Belfast Trust in 2010 and began consultancy work throughout the UK, advising on health and social care policy.

First and foremost a family man, anyone attempting to put business meetings into his diary on special anniversaries soon learned that these times with his wife and children were precious and protected. It was clear that he drew great strength from his home life and it sustained him in his busy and often challenging working life.

Away from work he once set himself the goal of being able to run a 10-minute mile. He trained diligently and was proud when he achieved his target.

Mr McKee, who had been seriously ill some years ago, is survived by his wife Ursula and children Catherine and William. A celebration of his life will be held on Monday at Ravenhill Funeral Service, Ravenhill Road, Belfast.

Belfast Telegraph

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