2021 JRF Trainer Award - Winner's interview

Interview with Dr John Curtis, Consultant Radiologist at University Hospitals Aintree

The interview was conducted by Dr Harriet Edwards

Congratulations on your teaching award, Dr Curtis. Did you always plan to participate so heavily in education?

I had never really planned on education, it evolved during my career but I always enjoyed teaching when I was a house officer, SHO and medical registrar and it naturally continued during my radiology training. I always enjoyed showing a good teaching case and know that this really improved my own knowledge of the case.

What keeps you teaching and what is your favourite style of teaching - large international online groups like you have been doing more recently, or smaller face-to-face interactive sessions?

I prefer small group teaching face-to-face as I can quickly understand any difficulties that trainees may have and try and address issues immediately. However, I also like online teaching as it reaches out to many more viewers. I use the online ‘chat box’ to obtain instant feedback from participants so that I can try and explain issues - online teaching without feedback is like talking to an inanimate object called a monitor!

You went to University of Liverpool. Did you always want to become a Radiologist?

Not at all. Liverpool was a fantastic place for clinical teaching but from year one I wanted to be a forensic pathologist and even did my medical student elective in forensic pathology in New York City in 1986. I played a lot of rugby at medical school which I absolutely loved. I qualified in 1987 and after senior house jobs in pathology I drifted back into clinical medicine. Not entirely sure what I was to do, I completed the MRCP and then following two medical registrar jobs I applied for a job as a registrar in radiology in the Mersey region - you could swap career paths more freely in those days. The first six months in radiology were quite strange really as I went from a role in which my opinion was frequently sought (medical registrar) to being a first year radiology registrar where my opinion was not required! After the first six months of ‘settling in’, I knew that radiology was the right career path for me. Having a good clinical experience before starting radiology was really useful.

What part of your career have you enjoyed the most? 

Teaching trainees to be more confident in their own abilities, thereby helping them to thrive and realise their potential. The reward of moving a trainee towards a position of quiet confidence is a great thing to witness. This confidence can often cascade throughout generations of trainees.

If you were to be starting your career now, would you do anything differently? If so, what? 

No. Whatever the current technology used in Radiology, I believe it is really important to remain clinically relevant and apply the prevailing technology to address the clinical issues, whether they be diagnostic or therapeutic. Always maintain your clinical skills which are underpinned by a sound knowledge of pathology.

Who inspired you throughout your career?  

  1. Dr CC Evans, Consultant Chest Physician at the Royal Liverpool Hospital who brilliantly taught all Liverpool medical students the art of diagnosis – his medical ‘circus’ enjoyed 100% attendance. His teaching applies to all medical specialties not just general medicine and constantly reminds me how to be a clinically relevant radiologist.
  2. Dr Joe Cohen, London GP, who ran the best MRCP course in the UK for many years during the late 80s and early 90s (‘The Cohen Course’). He was an inspirational medical teacher.
  3. The number of consultant and trainee radiologists that have inspired me are too numerous to mention. As a consultant, I have been hugely inspired by a large number of trainees for their work ethic, teamwork, high standards and general ability.

Medicine has changed so drastically over the last decade in particular. How do you think Radiology now differs? What do you prefer and what do you wish was still in practice? 

The apprenticeship is still achievable in radiology despite a myriad of imaging modalities which runs the risk of keeping trainers and trainees apart. The digital era has hugely benefited trainees – the number of learning resources available is impressive. However, the specialty needs to retain sufficient face-to-face teaching activity and for a workplace apprenticeship to foster the bond between trainer and trainee. 

Barium enemas have been superceded by CT colonography – this is progress and I don’t miss the enema sessions at all! I still like reporting plain films and I wish more clinical radiologists kept up their own interest.

Radiologists are trained very differently now to when you were training. What would you advise to those of us that are still learning? 

Keep your learning relevant to the patient and to the specialty – in other words strive to be good clinical radiologists. Embrace technology, face-to-face teaching and multidisciplinary team meetings as these are great for learning real-life medicine/surgery and therefore real-life radiology. Trainees should never be afraid to ask questions. Keeping up to date is a professional obligation for us all and don’t be afraid to declare when you don’t know.

For Mersey Radiology trainees, you are a bit of a household name! You have organised and delivered so many exam and revision courses as well as taught us throughout training. Has this developed slowly over time, or was this always what you hoped to do? 

After being appointed a consultant at Aintree in 1997, I started ad hoc teaching after work twice a week. I had always used the PA system in the department to usher trainees to my room to show them a teaching case before it disappeared into the patient’s real or virtual ‘packet’. I then started a Chest FRCR course in 2002, inviting my friends and colleagues to ‘examine’ and during the following year, with my colleagues, developed the Aintree FRCR 2B Course which is still running today. I started an on call course and also helped a few colleagues to set up their own successful courses. Medical education, after all, is ‘saving lives in slow motion’.

Do you have a stand-out moment in your career of which you are most proud? 

I was the proud and rather unexpecting recipient of the Royal College of Radiologists’ Gold Medal in 2017. I was very humbled at the time and remain so to this day.

A trainee noticed that when you reviewed work with them, you always said the patients name out loud. Is this a conscious action? If so, they’d like to know why you do it! 

Firstly and most importantly, I recite the patient’s name to check that the images displayed on the PACS monitor match those on the RIS screen. Secondly, it serves to remind radiologists that we are dealing with a person who has a name and, of course, sometimes the patient’s name may give a clue as to their country of origin and even to the diagnosis.

What do you like to do outside of work? 

Quite a lot really - watching Liverpool FC at Anfield and England Rugby at Twickenham. Playing football, skiing, golf, walking in the Alps and sitting in my garden. 

Only one sport can exist. Would you choose golf or football?!

Football, of course - the beautiful game. Rugby and golf come equal second.

Being a doctor is very rewarding, and equally a challenge. What one piece of advice would you offer for a successful and happy career? 

Be a great team player. Also be relevant, be honest and be kind – that makes three extra pieces of advice! Working effectively within the team will make all members of the team stronger and ultimately benefit patients. Being kind is always appreciated and remembered whether you are the patient or the doctor.

Is there anything else that you would like to add for Radiology trainees or Radiologists that are interested in teaching? 

Prepare well and start teaching to a small audience whilst getting someone you respect to observe your teaching session. Always take note of feedback to improve. And... keep going!

Thank you!