Dr Michael Jacobs
Dr Sir Michael Jacobs (PhD Clinical Medicine 1998) was recently awarded a Knighthood for services to the prevention and treatment of infectious diseases, recognising his role in the treatment of Ebola cases in the UK. As the clinical lead in infectious diseases at the Royal Free London NHS Foundation Trust, Dr Jacobs led the team who successfully treated nurses Pauline Cafferkey and Will Pooley, and army reservist Anna Cross, after they contracted Ebola while volunteering in Sierra Leone, the country worst hit by the epidemic.
Can you tell us about the work you’re doing now?
"I’m a physician at the Royal Free London NHS Foundation Trust, leading a team of seven consultants to provide a clinical service dealing with infections of any kind. I’m also the Programme Director for High Consequence Infectious Diseases for NHS England. My role there is to put in place systems and processes to ensure our preparedness for any dangerous infections in the UK."
What does a typical day look like for you?
"There’s no such thing as a typical day for me. There are some fixed commitments, for example I look after ward patients for 12 weeks of the year and I run clinics every week. Beyond that, though, things can look very different depending on the current priorities of both sides of my job. There are papers and research to keep up with and I get to travel for work as well."
You led the team at the Royal Free who successfully treated three patients after they contracted Ebola while volunteering in Sierra Leone. Can you tell us what that was like?
"The Royal Free had maintained a unit to look after Ebola patients and other infectious diseases for a long time, long before I joined them, so for us it was almost business as usual. The frequency of the cases was exceptional – normally we’d expect one patient every few years – and it was very high profile, with a lot of media attention on us.
The team functioned fantastically though. We were trained and prepared because we knew that it would happen sometime. We didn’t know that it would be Ebola and we didn’t know when, but we knew it would happen. Fortunately, it went well. We function as a hospital within a hospital, with a big team of doctors, nurses, pharmacists, physiotherapists and so on, and everyone was ready.
There was a huge, courageous humanitarian response during the epidemic, with hundreds of people travelling to Sierra Leone to help. To my surprise, our unit in the Royal Free became very important to them."
There was a lot of media coverage of those cases, what was it like working in the spotlight in that way?
"I gave a talk with a brilliant title, not by me, which sums it up perfectly: ‘Working in the dark under the spotlight’. We knew so little about Ebola and we were learning as we went, using new treatments, things that had never been used in humans before.
We had to disassociate from it all and just concentrate on the medicine,. We had the support of a brilliant communications team who advised and guided us so that we could focus on treatment and on advising and establishing new systems across the NHS."
In January you were awarded a Knighthood for services to the prevention and treatment of infectious diseases, how did it feel for your work to be recognised in that way?
"As I said at the time, it’s a very strange thing. By its nature it recognises an individual but I know the huge amount of effort that so many people put in. It’s lovely though. I’m honoured and humbled, and I hope the team feels that it’s their award as well."
Yours must be a career with a lot of high points, but also a lot of low points. How do you cope with those extremes?
"I surround myself with brilliant and diverse people. We’re very much not made in each other’s image; we have different skills and strengths and that makes us stronger and gets us through."
When did you decide that your interest lay in the field of infectious diseases?
"It wasn’t until after I’d qualified. I knew that I wanted to be a physician but not where I wanted to specialise. I was inspired by individuals and it actually suits my personality very well.
Infectious disease is a specialism of diagnostic conundrums. It’s not a ‘doing’ speciality; the work is in the diagnosis, solving the problem, and then the treatment is relatively straightforward. My tool is my brain not my hands."
Did your time at Imperial play a part in preparing you for your current role?
"Hugely. Research is such an important part of medicine and there’s an expectation that everyone should be at the cutting edge. The process of research, evolution and interpretation is crucial now in my job.
Until I started my PhD at Imperial, as a doctor I’d been used to my decisions being instantly rewarded. A PhD, though, is an extremely long term project, with slow rewards. It’s the opposite of clinical medicine, and it taught me patience, diligence and resilience."
What is your fondest memory of your time here?
"My fondest memory is very much the people I was surrounded by. They were a group of incredibly able people, some of whom I’m still in touch with today."
Do you have any advice for current students?
"Don’t second guess what other people expect of your career. Make choices that mean you can do what you enjoy every step of the way and the rest will fall into place."
Do you have a favourite quote or saying?
"I opened a Chinese fortune cookie about 25 years ago and this has stayed with me ever since: 'You cannot build a reputation on things that you are going to do'.
You can talk a great game, but in the end you actually have to do it."