New beginning for NHS Forth Valley is end of an era

Ian Mullen meets the Queen at Forth Valley Royal Hospital
Ian Mullen meets the Queen at Forth Valley Royal Hospital

The day HM The Queen officially opened Forth Valley Royal Hospital, Ian Mullen realised he had finally achieved all that he set out to do as health board chairman.

Despite the heavy rain on July 6 last year, crowds turned out to welcome the royal visitor, who, along with the Duke of Edinburgh, toured the building, meeting staff and patients before the opening ceremony.

Mr Mullen, who stepped down this week after nine and a half years in the chairman’s role, said: “It was a sensational day, but I never expected to feel the level of emotion that I did. Over the years, I’ve dealt with a lot of VIPs, including ministerial visits, even the First Minister, but this was completely different.

“When the Queen’s car appeared in the driveway up to the hospital and people started to cheer, it was amazing. It was a spontaneous outpouring of happiness because people were so proud that she had come to open their hospital.

“When the first patients arrived the previous year, I thought that we had spent so much time developing the site at Larbert that it was wonderful to see the finished building. That first morning with patients, staff and ambulances all bustling about, I realised that we had finally delivered.”

Plans for a new hospital to serve Forth Valley had been talked about for a long time, decades in fact, even before Ian Mullen came to the fore. However, as he watched his health authority predecessors try – and fail – to achieve it, he realised that he wanted to help deliver the dream.

“It was a challenge, but it was why I came here,” he candidly admitted. “I’d already picked up experience from chairing Falkirk Royal Trust and Forth Valley Acute Hospitals Trust. In my view, in the past the health board had backed off when it got opposition to its plans.

“My position is that it is impossible to get everyone on your side and you would never get all the politicians and all the media to be supportive. However, if you got enough support to carry forward your plan, you could achieve things.

“To deliver the hospital and the healthcare strategy we now have was challenging but I think that’s where my skills lie and I was able to put them to use – with the right result.”

Brought up in Bannockburn, he studied pharmacy at Heriot Watt University and his first taste of dispensing was with R. Gordon Drummond in Falkirk’s High Street. However, it wasn’t long before he opened his own pharmacy in Johnstone, Renfrewshire, eventually having eight branches across the Central belt.

Chairing the Pharmaceutical Council for Scotland brought him into contact with government ministers and officials, sparking an interest that was eventually to see him chairing the health authority.

His claim of “not being a very political person” saw him receive cross-party support when nominated for the health board in 1987 by Labour’s Harry Ewing and Lord James Douglas Hamilton for the Tories.

He spent two years as vice-chairman but his admission that he and chairwoman Iris Ibister had “different views” speaks volumes. She eventually resigned – after a Falkirk Herald-led campaign which saw more than 2000 readers sign a petition demanding she quit – following an earlier review of health services where she was seen to favour Stirling Royal Infirmary, where her husband just happened to be a consultant surgeon.

Although he didn’t get a second term, he was later appointed to the Common Services Agency, which looks after related health services including the Blood Transfusion Service, before becoming chairman elect of Falkirk Royal Trust in 1993,

“Back then I thought health boards were too secretive, too distant from the public. The NHS was and is a public body and should be transparent. It should also listen and be seen to listen.

“Throughout the consultation process for the new healthcare strategy I believe we were open and genuine. It was a really significant change we were proposing and we had to manage that. We also had to ensure that people came on board with us and I believe they did,” he added.

Although he believes the new acute hospital is his finest legacy, Mr Mullen also maintains that the community hospitals and the improved services to patients have as much importance.

“I don’t know the last time I had a letter complaining about waiting times. When I became the chairman, a wait of two to two and a half years for a hip replacement was the norm, now it is no more than nine weeks.

“Health boards are aiming for an 92 per cent success in meeting the 18-week target from GP referral to treatment and we’re significantly above that.”

He is also pleased that the instance of hospital acquired infection has also dropped dramatically.

But what about the tough times? “That was definitely back in the days of the trust. The people of Falkirk were, rightly, very protective of their hospital, but sometimes saw threats to its existence that were not there. However, some were real and as chairman I believe they had to be tackled.”

It’s apparent he takes satisfaction reminiscing over the time the health board decided the CT scanner in Stirling Royal should be replaced, despite the fact that Falkirk didn’t have one.

“I objected straight away but it fell on deaf ears. Having a CT scanner was a badge of creditability and I saw it as a slippery slope that I didn’t want us to go down with more and more services potentially migrating to Stirling. So I went ahead and leased a CT scanner which upset some people on the health board.”

He gives the impression that he rather enjoyed the days when he had to fight Falkirk’s corner, but is happier now that the health board has one acute hospital to serve the entire Forth Valley region.

“I try to spend as much time as I can meeting frontline staff. I never cease to be amazed by the incredible work people are doing in the NHS to change other people’s lives,” he added.

Paying tribute to Mr

Mullen’s efforts, Health Secretary Nicola Sturgeon said: “It is thanks to the tremendous contribution from Ian that the people of Forth Valley have a new, state of the art hospital equipped with all the facilities necessary to provide modern, high quality health care. I thank him for all of his hard work and determination and wish him well in the future.”

Married to Veronica, the couple have three grown-up children and six grandchildren. However, despite being 65 he doesn’t think he’s ready for retirement.

“I’m not sure what I’ll do. I’m not convinced that I’m finished with pharmacy yet and I have completed some executive coaching and mentoring courses so that is an option.

“However, I feel fortunate that I’ve had this opportunity and it is one that I have thoroughly enjoyed. It gives you a real boost when people tell you how the NHS has made such a difference to them.”