Star Interview: Why Sheffield Children’s Hospital chief thrives on his 24/7 job

John Somers, chief executive of Sheffield Children's Hospital. Picture: Dean Atkins
John Somers, chief executive of Sheffield Children's Hospital. Picture: Dean Atkins
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John Somers’ level of kudos at home is sky high – and it’s all because of a simple selfie.
The chief executive of Sheffield Children’s Hospital is still basking in the effect of meeting Dr Chris and Dr Xand from the CBeebies series Operation Ouch, an encounter that’s gone down extremely well with his two youngest, aged 10 and 13.

“They are, in children’s terms, Hollywood A-listers. I can do no wrong now.”

It’s also helped to settle a habitual question. “They do wonder sometimes what I do. I say ‘I run the hospital’ and they go ‘Are you a surgeon?’”

John, appointed in 2016 after spending two years as the NHS Foundation Trust’s chief finance officer, is in charge at an important time. The hospital’s £40 million new wing – a smart block on Clarkson Street that houses new outpatient facilities and modern wards – is now fully operational, and he can’t help comparing today’s surroundings with pictures on his office wall showing the original Sheffield Free Hospital for Sick Children, established in little more than a house with a handful of beds on Brook Hill.

“It’s just incredible,” he says. “I put them there deliberately to remind me of where we’ve been, and where we’ve come from. The day we moved our patients, literally nothing went wrong. It was an amazing day.”

The new wards feel ‘like a five-star hotel’, he observes, and it’s true. There are 72 beds, many in single rooms with floor-to-ceiling windows offering the best views in Sheffield – out to Norton on one side, and looking over Weston Park on the other. Nurses and patients are walking the corridors but the atmosphere is calm and uncommonly quiet; an environment that might be associated, dare it be said, with a private hospital.

“The facilities are first-class compared to anything that’s in the NHS,” John asserts.

Charitable donations covered £10 million of the cost – part of this money went towards an enormous ‘play tower’ in the bright, airy main reception, where families can gauge how long they’re likely to wait on check-in screens.

“You could argue it’s not standard NHS fare,” he admits of the tower that contains rooms filled with toys. “We’re a foundation trust, we have financial freedoms. But we’ve gone that extra step and decided we want a hospital that’s fit for the future, that’s here to stay and we’re going to be a provider of choice. All the feedback we’re getting so far is that it’s absolutely amazing.”

John, 55, is very much on home turf. He was born ‘800 yards away’ from the hospital in Hanover Square, and both his mum, a matron, and one of his two sisters, a nurse, worked there at different times. His father was an engineer at Ambrose Shardlow’s.

“I grew up with this on my doorstep,” says John, who attended St Joseph’s school in Walkley. Later he was offered two places to study medicine – at Barts and Guy’s, in London – but decided he’d ‘got other things to do in life’ and went into business.

“It’s quite an irony that I’ve gone the full circle and come back to lead a hospital. There must have been something there.”

His first job was at brick supplier Steetley. A succession of commercial roles followed before he wound up back in Sheffield as group finance director of Tinsley Park Holdings, which developed the ill-fated City Airport and its associated business park. This involved working closely with the council.

“That was my first foray into dealing with the public sector and the way things worked. I thought the NHS was a good challenge. And it was.”

He took posts with the health service in Rotherham, Lincolnshire and Wakefield before joining the children’s hospital. The corporate world, he says animatedly, has a ‘complete lack of understanding’ about the state sector.

“There was a very unfair view of it as a cushy place to work, that it was an easy life. Nothing could be further from the truth. I’ve never worked as hard, I’ve never had to hit deadlines and targets in the manner we are held accountable for. The goodwill that goes into an organisation like this...if it could ever be properly quantified it’d shock everybody. Everybody – to a man, woman or dog – goes over and above. And I’m sure it’s the same for all hospitals.”

Where do these misguided ideas stem from?

“I’m not sure, in all honesty. The private sector is held in great esteem, but public service is the core fabric of our society. We have international-standard surgeons; if they wanted to, they could go and practise in Saudi Arabia and earn millions. They do some private work, but they want to give back.”

Just over a week ago the health secretary Jeremy Hunt visited, and John was impressed with what he saw as his ‘apolitical approach’.

“His interest was patient safety. He said he wanted to make sure, on his watch, he raised the bar. I aligned to that so much. I do not want to coast. We realise there’s a funding crisis, driven by high-cost drugs and advances in technology, and people living longer.”

Every Thursday at 4pm, John takes part in a conference call with the bosses of the council, Sheffield Teaching Hospitals, the Clinical Commissioning Group and the Health and Social Care Trust.

“It’s great that we’re talking with each other. It reflects how we are in Sheffield. When you’ve got that degree of maturity you might get somewhere.”

John is keen to push the ‘prevention agenda’. “Healthy children become healthy adults. We might choose to top-slice our funding and put it into an area like Burngreave – there are certain areas of Sheffield that lead to greater admissions.”

His hospital, one of four specialist sites in England along with Great Ormond Street, Alder Hey in Liverpool and Birmingham Children’s, treated 169,800 inpatients and outpatients in 2016/17, with a further 56,800 attending A&E. The trust employs more than 3,000 staff and is rated ‘good’ by the Care Quality Commission, but John has a vision to reach ‘outstanding’ status.

Plans are in place to refurbish older wards – “We don’t want a two-tier system” – and a new lounge has opened for young patients with cancer, tripling the amount of space available.

“These are our most vulnerable children. Rather than the dungeons of the hospital they’ve got a beautiful aspect over the park now.”

A review is under way locally; earlier this month an independent report recommended expanding services for children in the community and in short stay units.

“We’re moving into territory where it’s a health economy – in Sheffield, primarily, and then South Yorkshire, Bassetlaw and ultimately probably regionally.”

He is hopeful a Centre for Child Health Technology will be launched on the Olympic Legacy Park in Attercliffe, linking companies with the NHS and universities.

“The NHS is an unbelievable institution. We’ve got to protect it. I think it’s got a very good future. But if we don’t do anything, it will potentially fall over.”

He admits to being regularly awed by his staff.

“I am like a little excited boy sometimes. I can’t help myself, they’re sick of seeing me now on the wards. I’m so interested.”

John’s wife also worked in healthcare, but stopped when he became chief, foreseeing the demands on his time. “It is a 24/7 job. But I’m really good at boxing things off. I’m good at dealing with pressure, I can just do it. I quite like the variety; one minute I can be dealing with a clause on a legal contract, and the next it’s a serious clinical issue. I thrive on that. I do reflect, every now and then, ‘Am I adding value?’ And if the answer’s no, that’s the time for me to think about something else.”

He once said a lottery win would allow him to retire to a villa overlooking St Tropez. Is it still a likely ambition?

“Yes, it would be,” he says, chuckling as if such a thing won’t be happening any time soon. “I’ve still got that dream somewhere.”

‘Honest conversations needed to avert bitter stand-offs’

The controversial cases of Alfie Evans and Charlie Gard – severely ill infants whose families opposed doctors’ belief that continued treatment was futile – put a global spotlight on the sometimes strained relationship between parents and the medics looking after their children.

“It’s really unfortunate how that all became adversarial, and whipped up by the media to some extent,” says John Somers.

“We’re in close contact with our colleagues in terms of offering support of any sort. There are lots of similar situations on a daily basis, in every hospital.”

Charlie, who died in July 2017, was in intensive care at Great Ormond Street while Alfie was on a ward at Alder Hey where, in extraordinary scenes, about 200 protesters tried to storm the hospital doors last month.

“It’s interesting how certain cases get taken out into the public realm. It’s the child at the heart of all this and what’s best for them and the family. We do trust our doctors. It’s more about joining together and having an honest conversation than anything else.”