Sir Bruce Keogh: The respected doctor exploited for political gains

The distinguished heart surgeon pioneered the publication of surgeons’ performance data to drive up NHS standards

Professor Sir Bruce Keogh is the highly respected Medical Director of NHS England – the man that journalists like to dub “England’s top doctor”. 

A distinguished heart surgeon, he pioneered the publication of surgeons’ performance data to drive up standards in the NHS – risking the opprobrium of colleagues, but ensuring transparency around surgical outcomes. 

He became Medical Director of the NHS in 2007, a role which was transferred in 2013 to NHS England, the independent body created by Andrew Lansley’s reforms to take NHS management out of the hands of politicians. 

However, his meticulous reports have been exploited for political ends. A 2013 report on hospitals with high mortality led to claims by the Conservatives of 13,000 avoidable deaths, a figure Sir Bruce said he did not recognise. 

More recently, his research into the “weekend effect” in hospitals has helped form Jeremy Hunt’s case for the contested new junior doctor contract. But the editor of the BMJ eventually wrote to the Health Secretary to point out that Sir Bruce’s paper had not confirmed that staffing shortages were the cause of thousands of extra deaths, and Sir Bruce distanced himself from Mr Hunt’s use of the figures.  

Now, the revelations that his letter to the BMA on the junior doctor strike was heavily doctored by the Department of Health will raise questions over the operational independence of NHS England when politics is at stake.