“This was the final piece of coming home. It sounds cheesy but this is my dream job.”
Professor Craig Harris could not be prouder of his new role as managing director of NHS Wigan Borough Clinical Commissioning Group (CCG).
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After two decades working in healthcare, he is now at the helm of one of the main NHS organisations in his home town.
The 41-year-old grew up in the borough and attended Hawkley Hall High School and Winstanley College, where his ambitions certainly did not involve treating patients.
“I wasn’t one of these people who always wanted to be a nurse, it wasn’t my life-long ambition,” he said.
“I took a year out after my A-levels. I did performing arts, dance and drama so I was more of a thespian than anything else.”
It was after doing a variety of jobs during the year out that Prof Harris started his nursing training at the University of Central Lancashire.
He has worked in various hospitals, including on the psychiatric and maternity wards at Billinge Hospital, as a staff nurse at Leigh Infirmary and as a charge nurse in the A&E unit at Wigan Infirmary.
Prof Harris joins the CCG from Manchester Health and Care Commissioning, where he works as executive nurse, director of safeguarding and executive director for commissioning.
He has held that role since 2013 and worked within the organisation for 15 years, through various restructures.
But he felt it was time to return to his home town, after moving back to Wigan in 2016 to be closer to his family and putting his nine-year-old son into a borough school last year.
He also spends his Saturdays working on reception at Stonehouse Salon & Spa, in Wigan town centre, which is run by his partner.
However, it was the job itself which really proved to be tempting.
Prof Harris, who now lives in Goose Green, said: “I always wanted to move out of Manchester for the right role. I wanted something where I felt I could add value.
“Part of what attracted me to the role wasn’t just Wigan - though that was a real contributing factor - it was that this role is at the heart of the integrated care system. It’s strengthening the work with the council and developing with our acute colleagues that integrated care system, so taking the Healthier Wigan Partnership and making it a reality.”
He says he “knuckled down” as he bid for the job and faced “probably the most challenging interview process” he had ever taken part in.
But he was delighted to secure the post and has already been meeting staff and partners, ahead of officially starting work on July 8.
His new job will see him lead the CCG, which is responsible for commissioning healthcare for hundreds of thousands of people.
It comes at a time when there are many changes afoot including the new Healthier Wigan Partnership, a new chief executive at Wigan Council and the upcoming departure of Wrightington, Wigan and Leigh NHS Foundation Trust’s chief executive.
With the focus on integrated care, Prof Harris believes the good relationships between partners is one of Wigan’s strengths.
Prof Harris said: “Wigan has come on leaps and bounds with The Deal, but I think the health element can really go further, faster now.”
He has already started looking at what needs to be done and hopes to bring both his personal views and his experience working in Manchester to the role.
Prof Harris said: “Part of my transition is to get to meet people, so I am meeting people from the Healthier Wigan Partnership, I have been reading the alliance agreement and talking to our clinical colleagues to understand what they all think the direction is and how it relates to Wigan people.
“I’m a resident and a parent and access health services here, but I’m also a public servant here. I have a unique perspective on it, I can see it from all those parts.”
His background in nursing will also allow him to see things differently to GPs in the CCG.
“I am a nurse so I have been trained differently and will challenge their thinking and understanding. I think it’s healthy to have some of that debate because I think it’s important we weigh up all the options,” he said.
He wants primary care at the heart of the integration, with GPs and other healthcare staff offering more services closer to people’s homes rather than sending them to hospitals.
And patients could start to notice changes.
He said: “I would want them to see how our service delivery footprints and our GPs and primary care networks will start to have more control and influence and be able to say, ‘in our community this is what’s meaningful to our population’.
“We have different needs, so you might not have as many children in one part of the borough but more elderly people and need to tailor services and that’s fine.
“There will be some things that will be golden thread throughout, such as safeguarding, access to emergency care and access to GP care seven days a week, but we might need different support in different areas.”
One issue he hopes to tackle is A&E waiting times, as Wigan Infirmary continues to fail to see enough patients within the target time.
Prof Harris said: “I think all of us in the NHS have a responsibility. It’s not just the acute trust’s responsibility, because they are not the ones who tell people to go to A&E. We need to look at what’s driving people to A&E.”
He wants to look at making sure people are aware of the appointments available with GPs and other healthcare staff and how to access them.
Prof Harris is keen for the NHS to contribute to the borough’s economy, such as by supporting young people through volunteering, apprenticeships and medical students.
He has ambitious plans to visit all 60 GP practices in the first six months, but also wants input from different groups in the borough, such as elderly people, those who are unemployed, children and the voluntary sector, to ensure the best care is available.
It is certainly set to be a busy time for Prof Harris, who is also a magistrate and chairman of charity Survivors Manchester, which supports male victims of sexual abuse.
But he is keen to get stuck in to leading one of the borough’s main NHS bodies.