Global Business School for Health


Spotlight on: UCL GBSH Honorary Professor David Probert

22 December 2021

We speak to David Probert, Chief Executive of University College London Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust and Honorary Professor at the UCL Global Business School for Health about his new role and the new UCL MBA Health.

Coffee table

David Probert has a long and successful relationship within healthcare as well as with UCL. Previously the director of strategy at University College London Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust (UCLH), in this role David led the planning and development of two new hospitals – the Royal National ENT and Eastman Dental Hospitals and the Grafton Way Building for surgery and cancer.

Following this, David went on to join Moorfields Eye Hospital NHS Foundation as Chief Executive. One of his key achievements in this role was laying the foundations for Oriel, a pioneering new eye-care research, education and treatment centre in partnership with UCL.

As of August 2021, David now holds the position of Chief Executive of UCLH.

David continues to present on a number of academic and training courses based on clinical leadership and management development. He has contributed to a number of publications and journals with clinical and non-clinical colleagues and personal development is a key area of interest. He is also a trustee of a number of charities.

We spoke with David to find out more about himself and the new MBA Health:

Tell me more about your background – it would be great to find out more about your education and career to date.

I did my bachelor of arts degree at the University of Leicester. It was a fascinating degree looking at archaeology and sociology, so three years learning about people and civilisations, but towards the end of that I realised I was interested in organisations and the concept of businesses, how they’re formed, and how people work in them. 

I’d worked quite a bit for different organisations and became fascinated by the world of business, so I applied for an MBA. There are different ways of doing an MBA; some do it later on in their career while some people do it early. I chose to do it early at the University of Leicester full-time. I found it really enjoyable, particularly learning about areas I knew absolutely nothing about. Which is what an MBA does – it gives you that broadening and understanding. 

Towards the end of my MBA, I became very interested in hospitals and the ways they and healthcare function. I actually did my dissertation looking at what was then called Business Process Reengineering at Leicester hospitals. And it’s there that my fascination with healthcare and the health services began. In the next stage of my educational career, I joined the NHS Graduate Management training schemes.

From working with UCLH and the partnership with Oriel, you have worked with UCL in the past. Can you tell me more about your roles and how important was healthcare management skills in your previous roles?

I’ve been very fortunate. About nine years ago, I worked for UCLH as Director of Strategy, which involved working with UCL, particularly around the planning and joining of medical school strategy to clinical service strategy. I knew then that the way we were going to maintain our position as a global leading hospital was to make sure we were very much aligned with the global leading university. I would imagine the university would also say the same is true of the hospital from a medical perspective. 

I then became the Chief Executive of Moorfields Eye Hospital, which is also affiliated as a partner to UCL. In those 5 years, I worked very closely with UCL to develop what is known as Oriel, the new Moorfields Eye Hospital and Research Centre which is hoping to open around 2025/2026.

And here I am now at UCLH as their CEO.

Healthcare management skills have been absolutely critical. Being a healthcare leader, whether you’re a clinician leading a department, a hospital chief executive, or a team supervisor in a call centre, having core clear management skills is vital. We have less funding, generally across the world, to cope with. We have more challenges, we have more ambition around technology and opportunity, and we have a growing demand on a scale none of us could expect. So, having the core principles of leadership and management in healthcare is now more critical than ever before.

Is healthcare management an area more business schools should be exploring? If so, why?

Absolutely. Healthcare is one of the growing industries around the world. Everybody, at some stage of their life, requires healthcare. Fortunately, because of advances in technology and medicine, lots of diseases people would die from are becoming more chronic and people are living with them – HIV is a fantastic example, and cancers are moving that way. 

That requires healthcare systems to think very differently to how they did 50 years ago - maybe even 20 years ago. That requires flexible thinking, leadership, and the ability to adapt. 

Is having an MBA Health at UCL GBSH a game-changer for the sector? If so, why?

An MBA is fantastic in the breadth it gives you in terms of learning. I always encourage those taking MBAs to choose modules that feel uncomfortable and that they know little about. This will stimulate your learning and make you develop. 

For those committed to healthcare development, an MBA in healthcare is game-changing as it allows you to have that breadth but also maintain your focus and direction on the area you know is critical moving forward.

I think it’s a really niche opportunity, particularly if you’re a clinician or someone like me from a graduate training programme with the NHS and wish to commit a large part of the rest of your career to healthcare. Having an MBA that’s focused is really helpful for that.

What would you look for from an ideal candidate applying to the UCL MBA Health?

The good thing about the MBA is that it always suits a broad group of people. One of the advantages about a course like this is there’s something for everyone.

When I look at the UCL MBA Health, we’re looking at a global market as well as a UK market, because challenges of healthcare affect people in Saudi Arabia, Middle East, China, Germany, as much as here in the UK. 

I think the UCL MBA Health would suit someone like me; a graduate manager, somebody perhaps a bit more junior, looking to grow and develop their career, has a bachelor’s degree, and wants to make that next step.

For the clinician, who is well-trained and well-developed as a clinical leader and wants to make the step now, this would also be perfect for them - be that a nurse, a doctor, or other health professional. But also for those that are not sure, who have a good longstanding clinical career and are thinking whether this is the next step.

Another group I think this would be relevant for is policymakers. Healthcare is becoming really important as a policymaker. People around the world are wanting to get a breadth of experience around healthcare systems, to help them become better policymakers in their own countries. 

Why are you excited to join UCL GBSH as an honorary professor?

I really enjoyed my years of education. I thoroughly enjoyed my MBA; it was a real highlight of my academic life. I’ve spent 23 years with my nose down working hard and developing my skills as an NHS leader, but I miss academic development and academic thought.

I spoke with Nora, the director of UCL GBSH, and said that if there were opportunities, I’d be keen to bring my experience to teach but also learn as part of that environment. I’m delighted she’s given me this great privilege to be part of the team. 

I hope with all the experience I have, which is in the UK, but I’ve also spent some time working in the US at The Institute for Healthcare Improvement, as well as having lectured in China and the Middle East, I can provide a good global perspective. 

What MBA Health modules will you be involved with, as well as other GBSH programmes? What will these modules teach students?

I’m starting on the “Leading Change and Managing Change” module which feels very real in a Covid environment. An area in which I have been very involved in across the NHS is change management, so I hope I can share and teach things I’ve done well but also things I’ve done badly or seen done badly. So, when students go back to their organisations or their countries, they’re aware of the things to look out for that go less well as well as things that go well.

For individuals already established as healthcare professionals, what benefits would they gain from learning about healthcare management?

You never ever stop learning. At least until you retire, you are going to learn something every day. Everybody entering this course is guaranteed to learn things they didn’t know before. And that is always going to add benefit to you being a more grounded and rounded leader. 

No matter how senior you are, there are always things you can learn to become a better leader. I think the other thing that’s important to remember is, life is hard in these positions. You can get wound down, you can get a little demotivated, especially with challenges facing healthcare. So, I think the MBA Health will also offer excitement. It will invigorate some people that may need that next kick. And also show the art of the possible; you can look at things in healthcare and say “there is no way we can ever achieve this” and then you can come through this course and recognise there are some organisations or countries that have achieved this. 

What types of jobs do you envisage for an MBA health graduate? And do you see a need for these graduates in the sector?

It depends on where they’re starting from. The people coming through this course should be the people that eventually go for jobs like mine; Chief Executives of big hospitals. I think that’s exactly the route people should be going for. 

They should also be policymakers advising government on healthcare in the future.

Even before that, they are perhaps people just stepping into leadership and management and I would expect them to utilise the breadth of skills to start their management career and journey. So, depending on where you come from, I think this will kick you into the next level.

I studied a general MBA and fell into healthcare through my dissertation. Had this type of course been offered then, I may well have gone down this route. Had I known I was going to join the NHS graduate training scheme, a course like this would have been absolutely critical and a great start forward. 

What contribution do you want to bring to the school and future students?

I hope I can bring many years of experience and many examples of how to solve problems. I also hope I can really bring empathy to their understanding of people’s challenges. And finally, I hope I can evoke a sense of excitement. Whilst there are challenges in healthcare, the world has never been blessed with the opportunities around technology and medicine that we have now. 

There is an excitement that will underpin everything we do and we mustn’t lose sight of that, now more than ever. 

Applications for the UCL MBA Health are open

Elevate your ambitions, ignite your earning potential and harness the power of world-class innovators with an MBA that will place you at the cutting edge of health leadership. Learn more about the UCL MBA Health.

Start your application journey now