Lives of the fellows

Peter Henderson Gentle

b.31 January 1941 d.24 March 2014
MB BChir Cantab(1967) MSc Lond(1972) MFPHM(1974) FFPHM(1979) FRCP(1996)

Peter Henderson Gentle was a consultant in public health with a lifelong passion for how information could be used to improve people’s wellbeing. He worked in the south west for much of his career, but latterly took on responsibilities at a national level within the NHS.

Peter originally planned on a different path to medicine. He grew up in Derbyshire, attending Nottingham High School on a scholarship, and as a boy was mad about aircraft. With his eyesight not good enough to fly fast jets, the next best thing was to design and build them. He was accepted at Peterhouse College, Cambridge, to read engineering, but once there he had a change of heart. He completed his engineering degree in two years – a year early – and, gaining a first, switched to study medicine.

He completed his clinical training at King’s College, London, in 1967, and, while considering his career options, was invited back to Cambridge to teach anatomy. It was there he became aware of the potential of information in healthcare and the emerging field of public health. Peter became an assistant medical officer in south London, while gaining a degree in social medicine at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, before moving to become district community physician in Tunbridge Wells for the Kent Area Health Authority.

At the age of 36 he was offered the role of area medical officer for the Cornwall and Isles of Scilly Area Health Authority, and moved with his family to Truro. In 1979 he became a fellow of the Faculty of Public Health Medicine. He moved from Cornwall in 1982 to become district medical officer for the Exeter Health Authority and would be based in Exeter for the rest of his career, in later guises as director of public health and a consultant in public health medicine.

Alongside his regional work in Exeter, Peter lectured at the University of Exeter postgraduate medical school and carried out research. He began to take an active role in clinical information, advising on various information working groups across the NHS, the Faculty of Public Health Medicine, as well as contributing to the work of the RCP’s own IT committee.

In 1995 Peter began serving on the NHS executive’s clinical information group under the chairmanship of the chief medical officer, set up to help drive modernisation in the NHS. The following year, Peter was elected a fellow of the Royal College of Physicians. He retired from medicine in 2003.

Peter always considered communication with the public and professionals to be an important part of his role. In 1988, the Acheson Committee reviewed the role of the public health function and recognised the need for the senior public health doctor to report on the health of the local population and how it could be improved.

Shortly after the committee’s conclusions were published, Peter produced one of the first such reports in the country. In 1990, the King’s Fund established an award for the best annual public health report in order to improve their quality. It was judged by a panel of health experts and journalists to ensure effective communication as well as technical quality. Peter’s report Better Health 1990. A report on the health of people living in the Exeter Health District, and ways in which it can be improved (Exeter, City Council, 1990) won the prize in the first year.

Peter became a member of the Faculty of Public Health Medicine’s annual reports committee and subsequently its chairman. This committee drove the creation of a national set of data for annual reports, and provided advice to those preparing reports. The quality of public health reporting has increased substantially since those early days. Peter’s pioneering work set an example and showed what could be done.

In 1988 he had to deal with the tragic and challenging matter of a surgeon found to have AIDS while working in Exeter. This was the first time that such an event had occurred in the UK and it aroused considerable attention in the national media, at a time when there was widespread public concern about AIDS.

Peter and his team had to act quickly to contact and reassure all affected patients, as well as manage communications to the wider public. Their actions averted what could have been a serious situation. Exeter subsequently became a model for managing such a scenario, and Peter advised the Department of Health when similar incidents occurred. He was called as an expert witness in 1996 when two other health authorities were sued by a large group of patients over a similar incident.

Throughout his career, Peter recognised that public health doctors rely upon the availability of information to carry out their work, and took a determined interest in finding ways to enable this. As personal computing technology became more available in the 1980s, he worked to create a local public health information service, an original predecessor of the many online health resources that exist on the Internet today.

Nationally, Peter contributed to the development of public health information by acting as the information co-ordinator for the Faculty of Public Health Medicine. He secured support and finance from the Department of Health for the Faculty’s information committee, and became its first chairman, continuing in this post until 1996.

In 1997, the European Commission invited Peter to join an expert group to advise on the organisation of health monitoring in the European Union, a role he would continue until his retirement.

In 1996 Peter was elected the first chairman of the Medical Information Group, a body set up to bring coherence to medical advice on clinical information and the development of information systems in the NHS. He led a study of patients and professionals on how information should be transferred when the responsibility for care is passed from one professional to another. The study was published by the Department of Health in 1998 and helped to shape the national information strategy, a key initiative for the NHS with the approach of the new millennium.

Peter was a member of the panel that appointed the head of information management and technology for NHS England in 1998 and, on its formation in 1999, the head of the NHS Information Authority. He continued to contribute to the NHS Information Authority, serving on programme boards, including the encryption programme board, the UK clinical terms board and the programme overseeing the development and implementation of electronic records in the NHS.

In retirement Peter was able to finally spend time on many of the things his busy working life had not allowed. He refurbished his house in Sidmouth, his engineering background coming in handy for designing the structural alternations and installing all the new electrics. He joined the Oxford and Cambridge Club in London and invested in a top-of-the-range Apple Mac.

Peter married Pamela Matthews in 1966, and was survived by her, their daughter Helen, son David and two grandchildren.

David Gentle

(Volume XII, page web)

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