Dr. Raghib Ali: ‘we can change the whole paradigm of healthcare’

Spotlight – 27 July 2022
Fresh from being honoured by the Queen, our Chief Medical Officer discusses his difficult upbringing, his work on Covid, and the realisation that led to his involvement with Our Future Health.
Dr Raghib Ali
Dr. Raghib Ali, pictured at Lancaster House following the news that he has been recognised in the Queen’s Birthday Honours list. CREDIT Alamy

When Dr. Raghib Ali decided to return to hospital work in March 2020, royal recognition was just about the last thing on his mind. At the time, Covid cases were spiking for the first time in the UK and our hospitals were in danger of falling over. Raghib answered a call for doctors who were not currently working in the NHS to return to the front line – and in doing so, put himself on a path that led to the Queen.

“It was a decision I made with my family,” says Raghib. “I remember my wife wasn’t overly keen on the idea of me going back to work in hospitals at the start, because we knew that people of South Asian origin seemed to have higher susceptibility to the virus. Every time you heard about a doctor dying in the first wave, they were of non-European ancestry.

“Once we decided I should help, my wife was supportive – so were my three children. I still had my licence to practise medicine, so I put my hand up.”

Two years of Covid and a birthday honour

The scene that greeted Raghib on his return to front line medicine was like nothing he’d seen before. He joined the medical team at Oxford University Hospitals, first doing the rounds, then later leading a team of doctors in the fight against Covid. “It was a stressful time – I can’t pretend it wasn’t,” he recalls. “There was a real fear of getting Covid. Doctors were dying, it was being reported on the news, and in the emergency department we weren’t given full PPE. Two porters and a nurse who I worked with lost their lives.”

Raghib was fortunate: he didn’t knowingly catch Covid during that wave, although he did get it in the second wave, in the winter of 2020. “I was quite ill, but I didn’t have to go to hospital thankfully.”

By that point, Raghib’s professional life had become dominated by Covid. When he wasn’t volunteering unpaid in hospitals during Covid spikes, he was conducting research into why people from ethnic minorities suffered disproportionately from the disease. In October 2020, Raghib was asked to become an independent advisor on Covid to the government, and in February the next year he started working on the vaccine programme, with a focus on increasing uptake among ethnic groups.

In the summer of 2022, Raghib received the ultimate recognition for his work on Covid: he was selected to receive an OBE in the Queen’s birthday honours list. “You don’t find out until about a week before it’s announced,” he explains. “I wasn’t expecting it, but I knew it wasn’t impossible because other people were getting awards for similar work.”

The boy on free school meals who went to Cambridge

Raghib says the interesting thing about the OBE is not that he received it for his work, which he sees as his professional duty, but that someone from his background received it at all.

“I come from a low socio-economic group. I grew up in Bedford and my parents didn’t have much money. My father lost his job in the 1980s and developed glaucoma, which meant he began to lose his eyesight in his 40s. My mother took on both the household and earning responsibilities. We lived on a very tight budget with just enough to cover the essentials – we never got pocket money or sweets, or ate out or went on holidays.

“I went to a very poorly-performing primary school. I was on the free school meals programme and I wore a second-hand uniform. The chance of a 10-year old in my position going to university was about 1%, but my parents always stressed that education was the way to a better future.”

Raghib got a scholarship to a better school at the age of 11, where he was able to pursue his interest in the sciences. After school, he gained a place at Cambridge, to study medicine. “I felt a bit like the odd one out at university – not ethnically but socio-economically. There weren’t many kids from my financial background. I enjoyed university – it wasn’t an issue – but I knew I was unusual.”

The doctor who saw a problem

After graduating, Raghib started work as a junior doctor in Oxford. He was put on rotation, going from department to department to earn his stripes. Each area of the hospital dealt with different conditions, yet Raghib kept noticing the same problem. “The patients I was seeing had preventable disease – or at least delayable disease. I treated people with cancer, diabetes; people who were coming in with heart attacks and strokes. They all had risk factors that meant we could have prevented the disease if we’d intervened early enough. I thought that the whole system wasn’t really working.”

On the face of it, Raghib’s realisation was simple. Treat disease early, or prevent it entirely, and the outcome is better than if you wait until the disease has established itself and had the chance to grow.

However, putting that idea into practice is another matter. It needs health research to take a leap forward, by identifying new ways to spot an individual’s risk of a disease long before symptoms start to show. And to do that, researchers need to analyse how diseases develop in big populations of people. They need a resource like Our Future Health.

Why Our Future Health will change the game

Raghib joined Our Future Health at the start of 2022, as the Chief Medical Officer (he is now also the Joint Chief Investigator). Using experience gleaned from his work on previous large-scale programmes in the UK and the UAE, Raghib shares responsibility with our CEO Dr. Andrew Roddam for developing the scientific protocol and ensuring that Our Future Health is run according to it.  He’s also responsible for recruitment strategy, leading the effort to get five million people to sign up.

It’s a significant challenge – with potentially game-changing results. “Our Future Health is an opportunity to change the whole paradigm of healthcare in the UK,” says Raghib. “The current system is not sustainable but with the help of five million people, we can really understand how we detect and prevent disease earlier. We will enable people to live healthier lives for longer.”

So, what will healthcare look like in 20 years’ time? Will hospitals be drastically different to the ones Raghib saw on rotation as a junior doctor? “I think hospitals will still be important for treating emergencies, like heart attacks. What will be different is that your first interaction with healthcare will be to understand your risk of disease, rather than when you’re already sick. Everyone will have a genetic profile and doctors will use it to explain how you can potentially avoid getting those diseases you’re at risk of – or put you on a screening programme to catch the disease early.”

“You’ll probably have an app that allows this to be delivered at scale and at low-cost. It will offer you earlier screening, earlier intervention, earlier treatment. It’s extremely exciting – and a chance for us to show the rest of the world how this can be done.”

“Too many people are living with disease for too many years. With Our Future Health, the nation has a chance to change that for good.”