Role Model: Tim Littlewood
Authors: Anne Gulland
Publication date: 16 May 2017
Anne Gulland speaks to Tim Littlewood, a consultant haematologist and associate director of clinical studies at Oxford University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust
Tim Littlewood was on the way to becoming a respiratory specialist when he met an inspirational consultant haematologist who invited him to observe his work.
At the beginning of the day Littlewood accompanied him as he examined patients and took samples of blood or bone marrow. He would then go back to the laboratory to look at the results and return to the patient to discuss the results and the treatment.
“This, to me, was being a complete doctor,” says Littlewood, who was inspired both by this consultant’s skills and his enthusiasm for the specialty.
“I tell young doctors that they will choose their career based on a number of factors. You have to be fascinated by the subject matter but if you see people working in the specialty who are inspired and enthused by what they’re doing that sends a very strong message,” he says. This is something he has tried to impart to all junior colleagues throughout his career.
Littlewood, a Lancastrian by birth, decided to study medicine after realising that a career as a professional footballer was unlikely to work out. He studied medicine at Cardiff University and did house officer jobs in London and the south-east before being appointed a consultant at the John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford in his early 30s.
His mentor gave him some advice as he took up the post, which Littlewood has in turn given to younger colleagues. “He told me to write down all the things I wanted to achieve during my first five to six years a consultant. He said I should spend about six months wandering round the department and then discuss my ideas with colleagues. Assuming they’re supportive I could then start to implement the changes,” he says.
Littlewood followed this advice to the letter and after six months set up a bone marrow transplantation service. “It’s not something you do on your own as you need good facilities and support from other colleagues. That was my number one target when I arrived,” he says.
Coming from a family of teachers, Littlewood has a passion for education. Another goal at Oxford was to set up a teaching programme for the junior doctors, medical students, and laboratory staff in his department. “This was a relatively quick win but what I’m so proud of is that I still run all these teaching events,” he says.
He broadened that interest in education when he joined, and later became president of, the committee of the British Society for Haematology by setting up an education committee.
Littlewood is set to retire from the NHS in September although he will continue to do some teaching. Looking back on his career he says the best thing about it has been the variety. He loves teaching, seeing patients, and conducting research. He has authored around 100 papers but says he lacks the “green fingers” for laboratory research.
“I’ve spent about 30 years treating people with leukaemia and developing and running a bone marrow transplant unit. It’s very demanding and hard work, emotionally. But if you see a patient who you have been looking after for months or even years dying because there’s no more treatment you can offer it’s a huge privilege to be able to do their palliative care well,” he says.
Nominated by Rachel Clarke, specialty doctor in palliative medicine
“Tim Littlewood is a leader in his field, but that’s not why I’m nominating him. The main reason is his exceptional example of how to be a kind, compassionate, thoughtful, and gentle practitioner at the bedside. In haematology you have to have the most difficult conversations with patients imaginable, and there is no one I know who holds them with more skill. He is also an outstandingly good teacher of clinical medicine—someone who always takes time to teach students and juniors, no matter how busy he is himself. He has inspired thousands of medics in Oxford and is one of the most loved consultants here.”
Anne Gulland BMJ Careers