What’s up, Doc?

Alan McKinney.
Alan McKinney.

Dr Alan McKinney has worked with the Western Trust for the past 24 years, 22 as the consultant in A&E and two years as medical director.

After 24 years at the helm, 22 of them as the consultant of Altnagelvin’s Accident and Emergency Department Alan has finally decided to hang up his stethoscope and retire.

But leaving a job which has become such a part of his life for the past two and a half decades will not be easy. He’s already looking to the future and hopes to be able to return to the Trust at some point to teach medical students.

Dr McKinney says that in the initial years when he took up the post as consultant in Accident and Emergency in 1991 he was the only consultant at the department and therefore was always on call if a major crisis or incident occurred.

“It was the sort of thing I could do in those days, I couldn’t do it now,” he said.

“It was a very busy department even back in 1991.

“We were seeing in the region of 45,000 patients per year.”

“But the staff have always been really excellent.

“We have a committed hard working staff who have a clear focus on making sure patients are looked after. Many of the staff I worked with in those early days have retired but that ethos has continued to the current staff.

“This is demonstrated by our performance. Even though the staff is small in terms of other comparable departments, our performance is the best in terms in the speed at which patients are seen and the quality indicators that we keep an eye on; the time it takes to get people off pain relief, the time it takes children to be seen, how long it takes for patients with heart attacks to get dealt with and how quickly we can deal with stroke patients.

“For all of these we are in the top rank in Northern Ireland and that demonstrates the commitment here.”

But the Derry doctor says there is more to A&E than waiting times.

“There is so much more to it than speed,” he said. “It’s important that people get the right treatment.

“The other thing is there are people who turn up at A&E who may have had a condition for a long time, like waking up in the middle of night with a sore back, I’m not sure that staff should be bending over backwards to get you seen within four hours.

“However in saying that no-one should have to wait 12 hours in the department and we want that to be minimised. We are doing quite well and are at the lower end of the ranks in terms of the number of people who have to wait for long periods.”

A zero tolerance approach by Derry’s court when it comes to attacks on hospital workers has helped the staff at A&E, said Dr McKinney.

“Staff come in here night after night and put themselves at a degree of risk,” he said.

“But we have to have an open door policy because we can’t have barriers to people getting in but the problem with that is that it does leave itself open to abuse by people behaving inappropriately.

“We depend heavily on the team around us particularly the porters who act as a security team and the PSNI and the courts to make sure that our staff are safe and need to be kept safe as they have an important job to do.

“The next person they see might well be someone with a stroke or serious accident. Staff can’t be messed around with by people who are just there to play games.”

But Dr McKinney says one of the attractions to the job is the diversity it offers.

“It’s an interesting speciality and very diverse,” he said. “We do every condition from baby deliveries to road accidents and heart attacks.

“It’s a very immediate speciality, a doctor can go in and make a difference, see they have made a difference so it’s very rewarding.

“We are a team and it’s not just about the doctors and nurses but the receptionists, cleaners, porters, and secretarial staff who make the whole system work.

“There have been some really miserable days where everything seems to be going wrong but other really good days where it all works and everyone is happy. Maybe we’ve had a delivery or maybe have rescued someone. It’s a challenge but a rewarding challenge.”

But he says the one part of his job he won’t miss is breaking the news to bereaved families.

“It’s a very difficult time for everyone and one that has to be handled sensitively. I wouldn’t say I am good at it but I have done it a lot. It’s something I certainly won’t miss in retirement.”

Dr McKinney has been involved in treating some of the people caught up in the most devastating events of the Troubles including the Omagh bomb and the Greysteel massacre.

“There are so many incidents that didn’t hit the headlines to the same extent,” he said. “We’ve had major road accidents, bus collisions and other accidents, the same accidents seem to repeat.

“I suppose that’s why I have been interested in trying to make sure we were involved with the media and local volunteer groups like the Home Accident Prevention Committee and Road Safety Committee to make sure people are aware of risks and prevent accidents rather than having to pick up the pieces after the accident happens.”

Two years ago Alan left A&E and took on the job of medical director after a period of sick leave.

“I must say I have enjoyed being medical director,” he said. “We have a great clinical team in the west including some of the best clinicians I have ever worked with. Our cardiac team who brought the cardiac PC1 service to the west is state of the art. We have a really fantastic team of surgeons, paediatricians and intensive care nurse staff. Everywhere you look there are great skills.

“It has been a great privilege to lead this team and has been a really positive way to end my career.”

Dr McKinney will retire on July 31 and he plans to start off the new period of his life with a holiday, followed by his son’s wedding.

“I’ll be settling down and doing everything on my wife Anna’s list that I haven’t done in the last 24 years,” he said.

“I have a granddaughter who needs looking after from time to time.

“I’ve been strongly supported by my wife. She has been a tower of strength and sent me out to work on the days I didn’t want to.

Anything I have achieved is because of her.”

“Obviously it’s a big change and I’m not sure how I will settle. I may come back to the Trust if the opportunity presented itself to teach medical students and give something back.”