Obituary: Caroline Thomson OBE, former chair, NHS Highland

Former chair, NHS Highland. Picture: Ewen Weatherspoon
Former chair, NHS Highland. Picture: Ewen Weatherspoon
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Born: 30 November 1952. Died: 16 August 2016 aged 64

Caroline Thomson, who was killed in a car accident, influenced the lives of people throughout the Highlands and Scotland through voluntary action, campaigning and public service.

In particular she was the innovative, formidable and hugely respected chair of NHS Highland from 1997 until she stepped down from the position in 2004.

Motivated by a profound passion for people, Caroline had a rare combination of openness, warmth and sheer charisma that drew people to her and made her someone they could talk to.

She was a giver, not a taker. She nourished, encouraged, mentored and brought out the best in people.

She had a ferocious intellect, possessing the ability to look at issues from angles no-one else had considered.

Though not a chess player, she had a Grand Master’s aptitude for seeing several moves ahead with absolute clarity even in the most complex and difficult of situations.

In Caroline’s world conventions were for challenging, obstacles were there to be overcome and sleeves were made to be rolled up.

But all that would have come to naught, had she lacked her remarkable ability to persuade others, often against their natural predispositions and prejudices.

Born to Irish parents in London, Caroline Gilvary qualified as a State Registered Nurse in 1974. That same year she married Allan Thomson in the chapel of St Bartholemew’s hospital, where she worked. On moving to the Highlands, where Allan’s job was based, she worked as a midwife in Dingwall.

When their two little boys went to the local Fortrose Playgroup, Caroline was to be found running fundraisers and being exhorted to join the Playgroup Committee, soon becoming its Chair.

As one of two Rossshire representatives to the Highland Pre-school Playgroups Association, she immediately found herself in the position of Treasurer, part of a triumvirate (along with the Chair and Secretary) of indefatigable women who drove the organisation to a new level of professionalism.

This is where Caroline cut her activitst’s teeth.

One arm of their strategic approach was to seek playgroup representation in public discourse. Local health councils, the groups which represented the patient’s voice within the NHS, were one of their target organisations. With Caroline’s background, she was the obvious choice to infiltrate her local health council.

Of course, Caroline shone. She was only 34 when she accepted an appointment as a non-executive director of what was, at that time, the paternalistic, deeply conservative and endlessly bureaucratic Highland Health Board (later to become NHS Highland), becoming its chair ten years later.

The Highlands was one of the UK’s most socially conservative areas.

With concern about the then-incurable HIV/Aids epidemic at its zenith at the time of her appointment, Caroline believed that social conservatism was a luxury health boards could ill afford.

She was successful in pressing the Board to take a radical approach to sexual health and drug misuse, much to the chagrin and outright opposition of many traditional – and powerful – segments of Highland society.

She pioneered joint working with the local authority many years before joint working became de rigeuer in other parts of the country.

She consistently put people and patients at the forefront of her thinking. She drove meaningful consultation within NHS Highland as a matter of routine well before it become fashionable elsewhere. She was deeply involved in many national policy ventures, and was a main figure in developing a national, patient-friendly complaints procedure.

Such was the respect she earned from her NHS peers that she was twice elected Chair of the Scottish NHS Confederation, an organisation that brought all NHS organisations together.

In 2003, in recognition of her immense contribution to health, she was awarded an OBE

On retiring from her NHS positions, Caroline’s charitable work intensified. She chaired the Highland Community Care Forum and Connecting Carers, and was co-founder of Caring and Sharing Highland, an organisation that raises funds to support carers and older people throughout the Highlands.

In her spare time she was an enthusiastic and accomplished Scottish country dancer and painted in watercolours. She loved to cook and entertain, and enjoyed sailing.

She is survived by her husband and soulmate, Allan, beloved sons, Alistair and Richard, dear daughter-in-law Teresa and three granddaughters, Niamh, Isabel (Bel) and Maya on whom she doted.