ACUTE CARE Royal Free in TV show with I'll Show Them Who's Boss star

Published: 03/11/2005 Volume 115 No. 5980 Page 13

As if managing an acute trust was not difficult enough, how about doing it with no previous experience - and under the constant glare of TV cameras? A recipe for disaster? Not if Sir Gerry Robinson has anything to do with it, as Ian Lloyd reports He transformed the fortunes of Coca Cola UK and his ruthless streak became infamous in the acclaimed BBC television series I'll Show Them Who's Boss.

But business mogul Sir Gerry Robinson is facing one of the biggest challenges of his career: transforming the fortunes of an NHS acute trust.

Sir Gerry has been drafted in for a three-part BBC documentary series designed to get to grips with the significant managerial challenges facing the Royal Free Hampstead trust in north London.

The former Granada chief executive admits to being 'in the dark' and 'genuinely knowing nothing' about how to run an NHS trust. But in the world of business, ignorance can be bliss.

'Sometimes it can be amazingly helpful to have somebody come in who just simply does not have an axe to grind, ' Sir Gerry told HSJ.

'Things become institutionalised; it happens to businesses across the board, and it is very good to have somebody come in and say: 'That doesn't look right to me'.' Sir Gerry, who converted Coca Cola UK from a£7m loss to a£17m profit in just two years, will work alongside trust chief executive Andrew Way. The programme has been filmed as three one-hour programmes, expected to air next autumn.

The trust, which treated prime minister Tony Blair for a slipped disc in May, ended the last financial year with a£10m debt, and fell from two stars to zero in the NHS ratings.

Through force of habit perhaps, Sir Gerry refers to patients as 'consumers', before reining himself in and admitting 'users' would possibly be a better word.

'I am particularly interested in the 'softer areas' of how this works.

What is the patient's experience? Do we answer telephones quickly? How smart are we at dealing with queuing systems?

'I am principally concerned with applying normal business rules, and that means giving consumers what they want, ' he said.

But despite his expertise in the private sector, Sir Gerry is unconvinced that an open market in the NHS, with the introduction of choice and payment by results, is the right way forward.

'I am always nervous about attempts by government to have some kind of sweeping change in the way things work, because these things are often very easy to talk about but very difficult to do. I would be concerned about what that means for people trying to run a hospital at the sharp end. In good organisations, you try to change things as little as you have to.' Sir Gerry oversaw Granada's takeover of Forte Hotels in 1996 and said he would be 'amazed' if running an NHS organisation did not have parallels with private enterprise.

Issues such as cleanliness, the availability of beds and the friendliness of receptionists are as relevant to the hotel industry as the health service.

But his overriding perception is that NHS managers get a raw deal.

'This is a very tough job and I can't help feeling that, compared to running a company in the private sector, the reward doesn't look as good as it ought to in terms of pay and conditions.

'To run a large hospital like the Royal Free will involve tough calls.

You are often in the hands of the unknown because it is increasingly difficult to predict what is going to happen a week ahead, let alone a month or six months.' Sir Gerry claims the ruthless streak he exhibited in I'll Show Them Who's Boss, where he attempted to reverse the fortunes of ailing family businesses, was justified.

'It was about making sure that those who ran the business were treating the people who worked for them seriously. I believe with a passion that when you have got things working well everybody is excited about doing it, and you should go home at the end of the day feeling you have done something worthwhile.

'That ought to be something you can play on in the NHS because it is about caring for people. It is more than trying to provide a wonderful service. It is about providing a service when people are at their most frail and vulnerable.' Mr Way said he was 'delighted' that he would be teaming up with Sir Gerry, and hoped it would improve the public perception of the trust.

'Although Sir Gerry has spent time in the private sector I am sure he realises the Royal Free is a lot more complicated than a small family business and very different from private industry. I suspect he and the BBC team will be on a steep learning curve from day one, ' he said.