Dr Rachael Liebmann is vice president of the Royal College of Pathologists and a consultant breast histopathologist at Queen Victoria Hospital in Sussex, with 20 years’ experience as an NHS consultant. She has held a number of senior roles in the recent past including membership of the South East Coast Clinical Senate Council, the Advisory Board of the Faculty of Medical Leadership and Management, and the Council of the Medical Women’s Federation.
As well as chairing the London, Kent, Surrey and Sussex Speciality Training Committee, Rachael chaired the multidisciplinary Kent and Medway Cancer Network Breast Group for several years before being appointed clinical director of the Kent and Medway Pathology Network, with leadership of all pathology services for a population of 1.7 million. In 2011 she helped to establish RCPath Consulting, a provider of independent authoritative advice on pathology service and commissioning issues nationally.
In 2015 Rachael was shortlisted for Clinical Leader of the Year by HSJ. She was voted one of the world’s 100 most influential pathologists in The Pathologist’s 2015 and 2018 Power Lists. In 2017 Rachael was awarded the Royal College of Pathologists’ medal for distinguished service, the highest accolade the college can bestow on one of its Fellows.
We are delighted that Rachael has chosen to bring her considerable expertise and insight to Sonic Healthcare UK. Here, she discusses her passion for pathology and ambitions for her new role as Group Medical Director.
What first attracted you to a career in pathology?
My first introduction to pathology was at medical school [Rachael graduated from Queen’s University Belfast in 1991]. I loved peering down the microscope during our pathology practical classes and remember thinking to myself, “There might be a career in this”. In my third year I decided to do an intercalated degree in histopathology, which I really enjoyed. I received a first class honours degree and from there I was set – I knew I wanted to become a pathologist.
Why did you decide to specialise in breast pathology in particular?
Early on in my career I was lucky enough to get a clinical lecturer position at Guy’s Hospital in the ICRF Hedley Atkins breast pathology laboratory – a high powered research laboratory with a phenomenal biobank. Working in the lab opened my eyes to the importance of breast histopathology as a discipline. The incidence of breast cancer is very high, so we need pathologists to take it seriously. The role cemented my interest in breast pathology and allowed me to get specialist training in the field, setting me up for my consultant position going forward.
You’ve held a number of senior positions at the Royal College of Pathologists, The Faculty of Medical Leadership and Management and many others. What did you hope to achieve through these roles?
My interest in working across multiple organisations to improve pathology provision now and in the future has been with me since the beginning of my consultant career.
I joined the Royal College of Pathologists as a regional advisor for the histopathology speciality training committee, before being appointed chair. I was keen to improve the experience of our trainees, ensuring we created a cohort of highly motivated and productive consultants who could carry out the job to a high standard in a high pressure environment.
Efficiency and quality have always been two big interests of mine. Some people think that quality is about doing lots of work for one patient incredibly well, forgetting about the backlog of hundreds of other patients also waiting their turn. In my view, efficiency is key to driving higher quality, better value care for patients.
I also have a real interest in research, in particular helping the next generation of pathologists gain the experience and skills necessary to pursue an academic career. This is one of the main reasons I’m so pleased to be joining the organisation. We already support over 700 research projects, big and small, and I’m looking forward to helping this number grow.
Where do you stand on digital pathology?
‘Digital’ can mean lots of different things to lots of different people. In pathology, it’s often taken to mean the sharing and analysis of digitised slides. The ability to transmit digital images has had a phenomenal impact on our ability to network, interpret, report and generally use our expertise in the most efficient way possible. HSL and TDL are currently working through their own digital pathology programme and I’m really excited to be part of that.
I don’t think AI will ever replace the need for pathologists, but I do think augmented intelligence – as used in radiology – will soon become a standard part of clinical practice.
Working as a consultant histopathologist, counting and measuring are two big parts of my job. Augmented intelligence can improve the efficiency of these tasks and also can identify empty space and so help to highlight the important parts of the slide. This can improve productivity by as much as 15%, which in a department of say, 20 consultants, makes a huge difference.
Why did you want to join the organisation?
I was very enthusiastic about the prospect of working here. The role of group medical director is a wonderfully pivotal one, getting to work closely with clinical directors and consultant specialist leads across various trusts and laboratories, and being able to influence positively the quality of pathology provision. Then when I came to visit the Halo I was absolutely blown away. The state-of-the-art equipment, the excellent IT infrastructure – it’s like Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory for pathologists! When I was asked in my interview why I wanted to work here, I simply said, “Who wouldn’t?!”
What are your ambitions in this new role?
My aim is to help HSL and TDL grow in a safe and responsible way – that is, in a way that provides continuity of clinical service while reflecting the organisation’s broader ambition to transform the way pathology services are delivered. Workforce and succession planning are two of the biggest challenges currently facing the sector. With so many clinical and scientific specialists, a keen emphasis on education and training, and significant investment in IT and infrastructure, we’re incredibly well-placed to address these issues – and lead the way in creating a pathology service fit for the future.