Published: 06/12/2001, Volume III, No. 5784 Page 5

Avon health authority chief executive Pam Charlwood is leaving after 27 years in the NHS, warning that the health service is about to face some of its toughest times.

Ms Charlwood will leave before Christmas to take up post as chief executive of Connexions South Central, an advice and support service for teenagers being set up nationwide to allow young people to maximise their potential.

She is one of around 70 chief executives contemplating new roles or early retirement as the strategic health authorities take shape.

But while Ms Charlwood is sad to say goodbye to colleagues and friends, she says she has absolutely no regrets about leaving the health service in the midst of health secretary Alan Milburn's reforms. 'The change in relationships means we will inevitably lose that organisational memory, ' she told HSJ.

'Oh, Mr Milburn, if you think that that you can maximise the momentum of modernisation in the next 12 months you are wrong. It can't go on unabated. It takes a long time to rebuild those trusted working relationships - It is going to be a very challenging time for the NHS. '

Ms Charlwood says that friends who have moved on from the health service in recent years 'say they miss the people, but nothing has re-ignited in them a desire to be back in the NHS. They are saying there really is a world outside, and we have very translatable skills and experience. '

She has been on the board of Connexions West of England since it was formed earlier this year, and is keen to move on quickly to allow the new SHA boss to find their feet.

'I feel energised and excited about being part of an organisation that is so stunningly, outrageously ambitious, working across the spectrum, ' she said. 'It mirrors so much life in a health authority. '

She describes herself as being 'very fortunate' to be able to tackle a challenging new job without having to move from her Hampshire home where she is close to her elderly parents.

'I do not have to worry about moving or earning the salary to put the kids through university, like lots of other people do. I've been able to make my own decision about my future - there will be some who will not be able to do the same, ' she added.

Cited in the Celebration of Success report in 1993 as one of the NHS's female role models, she has held senior management roles at Wessex region, South West region and Gloucester HA and was director of the Institute of Health Services Management from 1990 to 1993.

Viewed as a charismatic leader who could spearhead change, she acknowledged that the chief executive's job could be lonely and pressurised, but still, in 1999, said she expected to be in her post 'in three, four or five years' time'.

The chair of the HA she has headed for seven years, Tom Dowell, said: 'I know she is very excited about her new job, but I feel that it will be a real loss to the NHS when she leaves. '