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End of an era as influential medical director steps down

Published on 05 December 2014
Source: Arthritis Today

Professor Alan SilmanWarm tributes have been paid to Arthritis Research UK’s medical director Professor Alan Silman, who is stepping down in December 2014 after eight years.

Professor Silman had been an enormously influential figure in the world of arthritis research prior to joining the charity. During his eight years he has taken the lead in developing the charity’s research strategy, and done much to raise the profile of Arthritis Research UK as a charity and of arthritis as a condition that demands to be taken seriously.

More recently, he led the development of health promotion and policy and public affairs, as the charity extends its influencing work.

With his regular media appearances and ability to talk knowledgeably and enthusiastically about anything from the potential of broccoli as a treatment to the latest scientific developments, he also had a strong ambassadorial role and was a public face of the charity.

Chief executive of Arthritis Research UK Dr Liam O’Toole said: “Alan will be very much missed. Over the past eight years in his various roles he has made an enormous contribution to shaping the charity’s work in changing people’s lives.”

Directed research

A rheumatologist and epidemiologist by training, Alan introduced a more proactive concept of directed research, channelling funds into areas of unmet patient need.

“One of the things I’m most proud of achieving is that those people who carry out research on our behalf are now much more focused on the need for it to have an impact on patients,” he said. “The arthritis research community has been supportive and been prepared to work together to achieve this goal.”

Always an innovator, he also set up ‘USER’: the charity’s first lay patient group, giving a voice to people with arthritis and frontline healthcare professionals in helping the charity to decide which research projects to fund.

Alan's early days in the charity

Alan joined Arthritis Research UK in 2007, after nearly 20 years as the director of the charity’s epidemiology unit at The University of Manchester, tasked with giving strategic direction to the charity’s research expenditure.

He realised that the research area most ripe for development was osteoarthritis, which lagged way behind that of rheumatoid arthritis.

He set in train a number of research centres of excellence each looking at a particular area of need. The first, a primary care centre was followed by several others in other aspects of osteoarthritis including biomechanics, osteoarthritis and sports injuries, pain, musculoskeletal ageing, and tissue engineering, as well as centres looking into the pathogenesis (basis causes) of osteoarthritis. Other centres focused on rheumatoid arthritis and on the issues surrounding arthritis in adolescence.

Alan also played an increasing role in the charity’s important activities outside research. These ranged from commissioning reports on the role of complementary medicines, overseeing the updating of the charity’s information booklets and online materials aimed at people with arthritis, medics and health care professionals.

More recently he also headed up Arthritis Research UK’s emerging policy and public affairs team, aiming to influence those in national and local government and those providing health care especially within the NHS, to respond to the needs of people with arthritis.

Tributes from the rheumatology community

Colleagues from across the musculoskeletal academic community have praised his energy and commitment to the cause.

Gary Macfarlane, professor of epidemiology at Aberdeen University said: “Alan is a true original thinker and prepared to do things differently. He came up with new ideas on a regular basis and enthusiastically planned putting them into practice. He is a real ‘can do’ person and an absolute pleasure to work with.”

And David Isenberg, Arthritis Research UK professor of rheumatology at University College London, added: “Alan as medical director was not so much a wind of change as a tsunami! His work ethic was matched by his vision, range of ideas and quiet determination to make things happen. Working with him as he set up the clinical trials groups was truly inspirational.”

Alan will continue to work in advisory and consultancy capacity with the charity and a range of other health and academic bodies.

Although sad to be leaving, Alan added: “I’ve done the task I was brought in to do and I know I’m leaving the charity in good shape to deliver on our important mission. It’s been an incredible privilege to have had this opportunity – there is no other role in British medicine quite like this.”

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