Meet Prof Stephen Keevil

Stephen Keevil



 Find out more about Professor Stephen Keevil, BIR trustee....

  1.   What are the top issues concerning a senior medical physicist in an NHS Trust in 2019?

Although it may come as a surprise to many BIR members, for a large, integrated medical physics department like mine, our highest profile activity within the Trust is not imaging or radiotherapy physics. Instead, it is the equipment management work done by our engineering teams. This work impacts on every clinical service on our acute sites and in the community, and it is invariably the focus of attention when I meet with senior managers. With a background in MRI physics, I was not expecting this at all when I became head of department! Now it has become a major focus for me as I try to realise the opportunities that arise from having a centralised equipment management function led by engineers and scientists, not just in terms of safe and cost-effective management of our existing base of 65,000 items of medical equipment, but also ensuring that appropriate evidence-based decisions are made when it comes to investing in new technologies such as artificial intelligence. Another perennial concern is our workforce. The NHS provides a well-established and successful postgraduate training scheme for physicists and engineers, but future funding for this is now in doubt. And there are severe recruitment and retention challenges in some parts of the technical workforce, for example linac engineers. I believe that apprenticeship programmes offer at least part of the solution to these problems, and we have seven apprentices now at various levels in the department.

2.    You’ve been a BIR member for many years. How would you sum up the BIR – in three words?

Interdisciplinary: the BIR’s main strength in my view, bringing together the whole workforce in our disciplines regardless of professional background.

Reputation: as the oldest radiological society in the world drawing on a legacy stretching back to 1897.

Resilience: the BIR has been through some tough times financially, but thanks to the hard work of officers and staff it is now in a really strong position.

3.    What skills and qualities will you bring to the BIR Council?

I’m very impressed with the range of skills and expertise that the Council already has at its disposal. I hope that my 33 years of experience as a scientist in the NHS and in academia and my experience as a trustee of several other charities will be a useful addition. As a former president of IPEM I am no stranger to senior level professional roles, and I am looking forward to applying myself in a more interdisciplinary environment.

4.    What would be your advice to a young person entering the NHS as a scientist?

Medical physics is among the most popular career choices for graduates, and places on our training programmed are heavily oversubscribed. This means that our early career workforce includes many of the most able physicists and engineers in the country. They have the potential to make a huge difference to the way healthcare is delivered. I would encourage them to maintain the enthusiasm and drive that led them to choose this career in the first place, even when it is difficult in the face of day-to-day challenges and a system that does not always fully appreciate what they have to offer.

5.    What is the best thing about your job?

Following on very nicely from the last question, I would say that being able to identify and nurture talent is one of the most rewarding parts of my job. The flexibility that comes with heading a large medical physics department means that I can establish new roles which both respond to the changing needs of the service and allow people to exploit and develop their unique interests and skills. This is not so easy in trusts where medical physics has been fragmented, so that for example people may be discouraged from applying for fellowships and secondments because it is difficult to backfill fractional posts within a small team.

6.    Who are your “heroes” of medical imaging (dead or alive!) and why?

It is disingenuous to lionise individuals in what is by its nature a collaborative effort. However, I spent most of my career in MRI physics and hope that I will therefore be forgiven for singling out the great scientists and clinicians who had the insight and vision to turn an analytical chemistry technique into an imaging modality that has made unparalleled contributions to medical science. Many of these individuals carried out their work in the UK, such as Sir Peter Mansfield in Nottingham and John Mallard in Aberdeen. Another of that first generation of MRI scientists was Ian Young, who died in September, and it would seem particularly fitting to pay tribute to him.

7.    Should the patient fear artificial intelligence in medicine?

The short answer is no: artificial intelligence is a tool that in the right hands has huge potential to improve the delivery of medical diagnosis and treatment in any number of ways. The long answer is a bit more nuanced. Like any tool, there is the potential for AI to be misused. As professionals and as members of society we need to be mindful of the risks and make sure that there are sufficient safeguards in place. I gave a talk a few weeks ago about the ethical implications of AI, and there are some really worrying possibilities if we fail to address this properly, not necessarily in medicine but in wider society.

8.    What is your proudest achievement (in work or out)?

My proudest work-related achievement undoubtedly was to serve for two years as president of IPEM. I was the first president of the Institute in its current form who was not also head of a large NHS medical physics department, which certainly brought with it challenges but also I think a slightly different vision of the role and potential scope of the Institute.

9.    If you could go back 25 years, what would you tell your younger self?

In 1994 I was a research fellow trying to combine completing a very drawn-out part-time PhD with heading a small university-based magnetic resonance physics group. I’m not sure whether it would have been reassuring or frightening at the time, but the message from my older self to my younger self would be not to worry too much about what seemed then to be insurmountable obstacles, because they would be as nothing compared to the challenges that were to come!

10.    What might we be surprised to know about you?

Two things perhaps: firstly, I have been church warden of my parish church in Tunbridge Wells for a number of years. That has brought a different set of challenges from the “day job”! Secondly, I have driven a flock of sheep over London Bridge, which is an ancient privilege I have as a Freeman of the City of London.

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