Role model: Donal O’Shea

Authors: Anne Gulland 

Publication date:  09 Nov 2017


Anne Gulland speaks to Donal O’Shea, consultant endocrinologist and national clinical lead for obesity for Ireland

The seven years Donal O’Shea spent working in the diabetes and endocrinology units at Hammersmith and Charing Cross hospitals in London were an experience which proved formative in many ways. O’Shea became interested in endocrinology as a medical student at University College Dublin but it was in the UK that he developed as a doctor, researcher, and teacher.

His first days were daunting. “It was so intimidating when I arrived. Hammersmith had a reputation for being a world centre of excellence and the people walking along the corridors were household names in the field,” he says.

He was soon appointed senior lecturer, despite being young, and settled in thanks to consultant endocrinologist Peter Wise, whose clinics he took over. Wise was “incredibly generous” with his time, says O’Shea, sharing his knowledge and experience at the end of every clinic, despite being retired.

O’Shea says, “I did most of my endocrinology learning in that post-clinic discussion. This is something that the UK system is very good at—you have that half an hour to an hour where you discuss cases and get different views. I’ve brought that back into the job I’m doing and I see the trainees thoroughly enjoy it.”

Endocrinology is a varied specialty and O’Shea saw patients with diabetes, growth problems, and endocrine tumours, as well as patients undergoing gender reassignment.

“You’re dealing with a complete age range and a spectrum of illness and disease. One of the reasons I enjoy the specialty is the range of treatment options for what the body is missing. You’re not curing the disease but you’re managing it,” he says.

As a researcher he studied a relatively new hormone called glucagon-like peptide 1 which became a licensed treatment for diabetes and, more recently, obesity—the study and treatment of which has become a major focus of O’Shea’s work. He also won a fellowship to study how the brain controls appetite.

After seven happy and fulfilling years in London, O’Shea and his wife, an anaesthetist, moved back to Dublin.

Since coming back, O’Shea has been at the forefront of efforts to ensure the Irish government takes the treatment and prevention of obesity seriously.

“In Ireland we have never funded obesity surgery adequately. We have the lowest rate of obesity surgery in the developed world and that’s not something I’m proud of. There are now 17 randomised controlled trials showing the benefit of surgery. Economically we’re now at the point where it’s silly not to be doing it,” he says.

However, O’Shea’s lobbying is beginning to work and in 2016 the government published an obesity strategy. In September, O’Shea was appointed to the newly created post of clinical lead for obesity for the Irish Health Service Executive.

“I now realise, in the few weeks I have been doing the job, that I wasn’t sitting at the right tables. I’m going to be saying the same thing that I’ve been saying for the past 10 years, only now I’ll be with the decision makers and the people who hold the purse strings,” he says.

And with Leo Varadkar, a former doctor and health minister, as taoiseach, O’Shea is confident of change.

“I wouldn’t have taken the job if I didn’t think there were significant opportunities for progress,” he says.

Nominated by Amy Morgan, a GP in Drogheda, Ireland

“Professor O’Shea taught me as an undergraduate and I worked with him during my intern year and as a senior house officer. He is incredibly inspiring in his commitment to teaching students and to his patients. While I followed a different career path, I learnt a lot about chronic disease management, our responsibility as clinicians to see our patients as more than disease entities, and being confident in my own abilities.”

Anne Gulland BMJ Careers

 agulland@bmj.com

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