Obituary: Dame Denise Coia, Scottish clinical psychiatrist

Dame Denise Assunta Coia (Macdonald) DBE, FRCPsych, FRCPSG, FRSE , psychiatrist. Born: 4 June 1952, in Glasgow. Died: 9 April 2020, aged 67.

Dame Denise Coia in 2019

Dame Denise Coia, who passed away peacefully after a short illness, was a clinical psychiatrist and leader in the field of mental health whose work was internationally recognised.

An only child, Denise Assunta Coia was born in Glasgow and brought up in Milngavie. Her father Joe and her mother Jill ran a local fish and chip shop in Milngavie.

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She attended Notre Dame High School and subsequently studied medicine at Glasgow University.

It was in Glasgow she met her future husband Archie Macdonald, originally from Benbecula and a marine engineer with Caledonian MacBrayne. They married in 1977.

Early in her medical career she switched from obstetrics – which she had described as “boring” – to clinical psychiatry. Her career as a consultant psychiatrist was largely based in the Gorbals, one of the most deprived communities in Glasgow.

It was there that she developed her lifelong commitment to improving the mental health of the most vulnerable and disadvantaged in society. Denise was one of the pioneers of specialist community 
mental health services across Glasgow.

Holding many official positions, Denise served as Vice President of the Royal College of Psychiatrists UK and was Chair of the Royal College of Psychiatrists in Scotland. She also served as the Principal Medical Officer in the Scottish Government.

As Chair of the newly formed Healthcare Improvement Scotland (HIS), Denise was tenacious, in skilfully building a strong and internationally respected organisation focused on driving improvements in the quality of healthcare. She was also not shy in asserting the organisation’s independence from government and ministers, through the publication of some hard-hitting hospital inspection reports.

Denise drew admiration and respect from all quarters for her personal courage and straight talking. She had a formidable intellect and enjoyed robust debate but was always ready to see the other side of a well-argued case.

She also found interesting metaphors to express her thoughts and was often open and candid in doing so.

Fearing that without reform, the NHS could consume infinitely more resources, she took the opportunity – in a HIS public annual review meeting with the government – to give Ministers a warning about a possible parallel with the fate of the world’s only seven-
masted schooner, the Thomas W Lawson.

In simply adding more masts to compete with steamships, the schooner had not kept pace with the revolution in maritime trade. The ship ultimately failed and sank in a storm. Denise’s message was abundantly clear – there was a need for the NHS to redesign and change with the times to survive.

Denise was appointed a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 2016. She was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh in 2018.

Denise took considerable interest in medical education and in supporting the development and training of junior doctors. She chaired the GMC Scrutiny Quality Scrutiny Group overseeing the quality of postgraduate and undergraduate medical training in the UK. With Professor Michael West, she also led an extensive review into the mental wellbeing of medical students and doctors, “Caring for Doctors, Caring for Patients”, published in 2019.

Throughout her career, and especially in her later years, she championed the mental health of children and young people. Denise passionately believed in investing more in child and adolescent mental health services, so was a natural choice to chair the Scottish Government/Cosla Taskforce on Children and Young People’s Mental Health. She also served as Convenor of Children in Scotland in her last few years.

In her typically energetic and inclusive way, she initiated a huge listening exercise across Scotland and relished the chance to talk to hundreds of people, but most importantly children, young people and families. Her response, when hearing excuses about service failures, was that she was listening to what children and young people were telling her and under her watch, the failures they had experienced would not be repeated.

Even with all her achievements, Denise remained firmly down to earth. She brought joie de vivre, laughter and a wonderful sense of humour – always with a sparkle and not without a hint of mischief and self-deprecation.

She loved socialising and catching up across her wide network of friends and colleagues – and particularly enjoyed exchanging news. This was evident even in the weeks before her health finally deteriorated – she was always planning the next coffee or lunch.

Denise had a passionate interest in art. In Glasgow’s European City of Culture year in 1990 she established an exhibition from her mental health centre base of artwork by those who had suffered from mental ill health and by their carers.

She was immensely proud of her two sons, Alexander, a paediatric surgeon in London and Andrew, an interventional radiologist in Oxford. Both graduated in Medicine from Oxford University.

Denise leaves behind her beloved husband Archie, sons Alexander and Andrew, and three grandchildren.

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