Peter Kennedy

THE psychiatrist and influential York health service manager Peter Kennedy has died aged 71 from the malignant adrenal tumour for which he had been receiving treatment for the past 13 years.

His career began in the later 1950s when he entered Leeds University Medical School, a decision taken casually, but which was to have a profound effect on the management of mental health services and the delivery of health care in the early 21st century.

Dr Kennedy was born in wartime Bradford and went to St Bede’s Grammar School before entering medical school. He began psychiatry in York in the early 1960s, joining the Medical Research Council in Edinburgh where he rubbed shoulders with some of the most significant names in British Psychiatry.

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In Edinburgh he worked on parasuicide but he was also recognised by many for his teaching ability. Too young, at 36 to be considered for a chair and recognising that an academic career would cut him off from an ability to influence the lives of those who used the mental health services, he decided to return to mainstream psychiatry in York in 1980.

He wanted to organise services based on the needs and choices of those receiving them and not simply to reflect the choices made by providers. Resistance to change was widespread and the considerable reputation of Dr Kennedy alone was not enough to overcome this. A move into management in 1985 saw him reduce his clinical time and take on the role of mental health unit manager. He was able to lead by example and influence management decisions, appointing doctors and nurses able to provide treatment outside large expensive hospitals. He reduced the size of those hospitals, employing resources more efficiently. Dr Kennedy’s particular skill was that of listening; recognising the legitimacy of concerns and enabling doubters to experience the positives which came from change.

Health Service management in York recognised the value in this approach and in 1989 he was appointed to district general manager for York Hospitals, becoming chief executive of York Hospitals Trust in 1992. His skill as a doctor enabled him to work with senior consultants and persuade them to accept change, often against expectation. He was able to maintain the momentum of change in mental health services despite enormous pressure to divert savings elsewhere. He was invited to co-chair the London Mental Health Task Force after the inquiry into the care of Christopher Clunis. Dr Kennedy’s approach of listening to those most involved and allowing their voice to be heard was reflected strongly in this work.

He first met Sarrie during their Bradford school days. They were married at the beginning of Dr Kennedy’s medical career. Theirs was a relationship of shared interests, lively at times but always loving, John, Juliette and Andrew the most visible proof. Good fortune like theirs was something to be shared; in Edinburgh their household was host to a broad group of international doctors. In York, good food, fine wine, congenial company characterised the generosity of their marriage.

Dr Kennedy’s first experience of illness came at the end of his time as CEO. After surgery and a brief respite there was still more to do. Establishing the Northern Centre became a new career and led to work which changed national policy. New Ways of Working became the template for psychiatric teams to share skills and efficiently use resource. The Royal College of Psychiatrists appointed him vice president.

In 2001 Dr Kennedy had become chairman of St Leonard’s Hospice in York and was to remain so for seven years, during which Hospice at Home was set up. Dr Kennedy and his wife were to experience the embracing support that this offered in his last illness.

Peter Kennedy has touched the lives of many. A modest man with great sense of what should be and what is right, expressed with great humour. He had little time for the trappings of office, he was proud of the achievements of his children all of whom work in health and social care, and his seven grandchildren.