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Reflections on a groundbreaking career: The legacy of a trailblazer in higher education

  • Education

As Professor Hannah McGee concludes her term as Deputy-Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs at RCSI, she shares her reflections on a career that has shaped health sciences education in Ireland and beyond.

Professor Hannah McGee is a health psychologist by training – and a researcher at heart – and it is this perspective that has defined her path as an educational leader. 

“I have always collected evidence and information to help others make decisions – in my research career it’s been for healthcare leaders and policy makers, but also for the individual healthcare provider. As a methodologist, I enjoy the challenge of determining how to design the research or review to get actionable answers,” she says. 

“Applying this to education, the focus has been what we are doing, what we can do better, what students think, and how innovations happening elsewhere can inform our decisions.” 

Professor McGee is a pioneer in academia, driven by a desire to get to the truth. She studied natural sciences at undergraduate level, which included both psychology and the basic health sciences.

In 1987, she joined the fledgling RCSI Department of Health Psychology, which ultimately has had a major impact on the university as a whole – with foundation colleagues establishing RCSI’s Institute of Leadership (Professor Ciaran O’Boyle) and taking lead roles in RCSI’s MSc in Human Factors in Surgery (Professor Eva Doherty) and SPHeRE (the national Structured Population Health, Policy and Health Services Research Education PhD programme) (Professor Anne Hickey). 

From the outside, Professor McGee may best be remembered for her leadership of the groundbreaking Sexual Abuse and Violence in Ireland (SAVI) report. Released in 2002, this whole-population study laid bare the scale of sexual abuse and sexual violence in Ireland, giving a voice to generations of those impacted, as well as providing a critical baseline for further research. 

“It was methodologically challenging to design a safe and credible survey,” she recalls, “but, I knew, not impossible: I had spent my career until then applying knowledge from my core discipline to assess issues such as quality of life in areas including coronary diseases, stroke and ageing.”

Hannah McGee

During her time at RCSI, Professor McGee held numerous roles, including most recently that of Deputy Vice-Chancellor for Academic Affairs. 

“My goal has been to ensure that all our healthcare students have a preparation for lifelong education and career delivery and development. In the early days, we introduced a psychological underpinning to educational curricula, focused on understanding the experiences and concerns of patients – how aspects of memory, emotion, stress, life experiences etc impact on the patient’s experience and outcomes,” she says. 

“More recently, taking research evidence from positive health sciences, we have focused on a major re-development of the curriculum to support students to work on their own self-development along ‘growth mindset’ principles – developing students by introducing concepts of self-care and resilience alongside developing professionalism and leadership in their early years as they start to form their professional identities as healthcare professionals,” she says. “These will be the tools and values that remain, to sustain them in their careers, long after facts learned become outdated or readily available through initiatives such as AI. 

“Acknowledging a continuum of lifelong education and of ‘user’ insights, just as we involve public and patient involvement (PPI) in research and education, we have formalised our engagement with students as co-developers of our processes, governance and offerings. A Student Engagement and Partnership (StEP) Programme, which facilitates staff and students working together on student-identified education innovation projects, gives voice to the creative potential of the next generation of healthcare leaders, as shapers as well as consumers of our education.” 

Professor McGee is very proud that RCSI received the ASPIRE award in 2022, an award of the Association for Medical Education in Europe, for student engagement. 

Reflections on change

Since 2010, RCSI has added three new schools: the School of Population Health, which has a focus on developing the evidence and the evaluation skills to study and to intervene at whole-population levels; the School of Pharmacy and Biomolecular Sciences, which combines knowledge from pharmacy and pharmaceutics; and the School of Dentistry, established this year, to graduate dentists to meet local and international dental workforce shortages.

It has also added a new BSc in Advanced Therapeutic Technologies, preparing science-focused students to work in the pharmaceutical and biopharmaceutical industries. At postgraduate level, a new two-year Physician Associate qualification, which trains science graduates to work with physicians across a range of areas, has commenced. “Our Physician Associate programme, the first in Ireland, continues RCSI’s pioneering engagement with healthcare innovations elsewhere, and adds to the range of professionals who can support the complex teamwork and workforce needs in healthcare systems,” Professor McGee says.

Since 2013, the continuous professional development of staff has been supported by a Healthcare Professions Education Centre, providing scholarly input and research on education alongside a very popular education diploma, now required for all academic staff in advance of career progression.   

In terms of physical infrastructure, a state-of-the-art medical simulation facility was added in a 10-floor extension to the city centre campus, in 2017. “This provides a wonderful safe place to start skills and team learning for undergraduates, and as a key resource for RCSI’s national roles in surgical and related training is a daily demonstration to undergraduates of the lifelong skills development needs and opportunities for healthcare professionals.” An award-winning facility, she says, “to paraphrase the advert, it’s ‘probably’ the best facility of its kind in Europe.” 

Outside RCSI, Professor McGee says that changes in higher education have included increased national and international accreditation and regulatory demands. 

“In many ways, it is a tougher environment now,” she says. “Your feet are to the fire all the time, but this regulation has led to greater professionalisation in academia, which can only be a good thing, particularly in an increasingly competitive international education environment. Our overseas campuses, and common curricula and academic exams and awards, have and continue to challenge us to ensure we deliver an international education in all of our campuses – and not just an Irish education to international students and locations.

“We are now in the world’s top 300 universities (Times Higher Education ranking) – an incredible achievement for a small single-faculty institution. And it signals the strength of both scholarly activities – research and education. Even more pleasing, in terms of our core business as a health-focused institution, we were ranked world number one in 2020 and again in 2023 for our contribution to the UN Sustainable Development Goal No 3 – ‘Good Health and Well-being’, Professor McGee says.

Career highlights – and what is next

Every year, RCSI holds the International Education Forum, an internal conference where staff from across RCSI’s different campuses come together to share their experiences and innovations with one another. “It’s a chance to get over 200 people together to address challenges, and to consider innovations and local solutions of colleagues across our different schools and campuses. Our international staff colleagues share our passion to deliver the best international curricula – and so it’s a hugely important feature of our annual education innovation ambitions,” Professor McGee says.

This enthusiasm for innovation was vital for RCSI in achieving university status in 2019.

“Perhaps the biggest highlight of my time in RCSI was the day that we were awarded university status,” Professor McGee says. “It took over 50 years of planning by many leaders, and a decade of really focused work, to make it happen. We went from being a medical training college to an institution that developed a strong research portfolio in the last 50 years. Along the way, we added schools of physiotherapy and pharmacy, and nursing and midwifery, and healthcare management, and a strong postgraduate school delivering doctoral degrees alongside significant research grant income, led by our Office for Research and Innovation.”

Achieving that status has further enabled RCSI to expand its international footprint, developed initially because of the international reputation RCSI had developed as a leading surgical training centre. Along with a strong presence in the Middle East, RCSI has a foreign university branch campus in Penang Malaysia, a joint venture with UCD and one of only ten foreign branch campuses in Malaysia, and it is also about to start pharmacy education in China’s Soochow University. 

“As I retire, I am proud that we have continued RCSI’s legacy of innovative approaches to healthcare and health sciences education, as we have innovated in campus infrastructure to foster education, in ongoing staff development as educators and in curricular developments to foster graduates with enduring competencies for evolving their healthcare practices and career impact on population health,” Professor McGee says.

RCSI is committed to achieving a better and more sustainable future through the UN Sustainable Development Goals.