Out at Work: Dr Michael Farquhar, Consultant in Paediatric Sleep Medicine

Being yourself at work is something that LGBTQ+ people continue to wrestle with. As part of our Out at Work series, Vada meets Dr Michael Farquhar, a Consultant in Paediatric Sleep Medicine, and the doctor behind the NHS Rainbow Badge scheme.

As well as being a doctor who specialises in children’s sleep, Dr Mike Farquhar is also responsible for spearheading the NHS Rainbow Badge initiative, which has enabled thousands of NHS staff across the United Kingdom to champion LGBTQ+ visibility.

Mike’s vocation for medicine is close to his heart, inspired by the care his sister received from the healthcare professionals who saved her life. Equally, his drive to increase awareness and visibility of LGBTQ+ topics across the health service, comes from his own experiences of being gay, and a desire to make a difference for the next generation of healthcare professionals and patients alike.

Now under threat, as reported by VICE News prior to this interview, the NHS Rainbow Badge scheme has sparked conversations from healthcare professionals to patients alike.

 

Vada: Why did you decide to work in your field?

Mike: I’m a consultant paediatrician, specialising in sleep medicine, at Evelina London Children’s Hospital, and I’ve worked here since 2012. When I was a kid, my wee sister got very sick and nearly died (with an illness called epiglottitis that is now very rare thanks to vaccination), and seeing the people who saved her life inspired me to want to be a doctor. To be fair, to begin with I assumed I’d end up being a doctor in space like Dr McCoy in Star Trek, but I never really wanted to be anything else.

And I’m a sleep doctor because when I was a teenager I started to have very vivid terrifying dreams where it felt like I was paralysed. My GP reassured me it was probably ok, but they didn’t really know that much about it themselves – so I started researching sleep myself and found myself down this fascinating rabbit-hole of biology, mythology, and cultural interpretations of sleep. I found the scientific explanation for my weird sleep things – hypnagogic hallucinations and sleep paralysis – but I also found all the myths of demons that come in the night and attack people in their sleep that different cultures have to explain these episodes – and I was hooked. Reading Neil Gaiman’s “The Sandman” comics fairly soon after that, which really explore the weird and wonderful mythologies of sleep across cultures as well, sealed it for me.

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Sleep is fundamental to everyone’s health, wellbeing and just being able to be the best version of themselves, but we don’t teach healthcare professionals much about it. So I decided I’d try to make a career of it (mostly successfully!)

Where did you train to become a doctor?

I went to medical school in Edinburgh, partly because it had a great reputation as a medical school, but more because Edinburgh was a fantastic city to be a student. I think it’s one of the world’s really magical cities, and getting to experience the Festivals every summer was a definite plus.

Where have you worked prior to your current role?

I did my first year as a doctor in a hospital just outside Edinburgh, which was a great place to get experience, but I then moved to the children’s hospital in Glasgow to start my paediatric training. It’s a long time ago now but the 5 years I spent there really shaped the doctor I’ve become… and Glasgow is just the most brilliant place to live. Edinburgh gets all the tourist love, but Glasgow has a really infectious energy that’s hard to resist. After that I – reluctantly it has to be said – moved to England, and continued training in Lincoln and Nottingham. I took a year out to work in Sydney, mainly to get experience in sleep medicine which I couldn’t get in the UK, as well as getting to see how a different health system works. Sydney is another spectacular city and I had an amazing time making the most of it. When I finished training, I worked at Great Ormond Street Hospital for a year, with the plan being that I was going to head back to Sydney afterwards (and had the post all lined up) as the sort of job I thought I wanted didn’t really exist in the UK, but then the job I’m now in was created at Evelina London, and I was tempted to stay. It’s a real Sliding Doors moment for me though – some grey, miserable London mornings I think about the alternate version of me enjoying sunny evenings on Bondi Beach after work!

How did you land your current job?

It was a brand new post, and still one of very few like it in the UK. I had a few chats with the existing team, and was invited to apply. It’s always a bit scary I think when you first become a consultant, but there’s a lot of opportunity there as well. One of the reasons I decided to stay in the UK is that this job has given me the opportunity to help shape what my speciality is in the UK, which has been really exciting, if hard work sometimes!

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Have you always been ‘out’ at work?

Absolutely not! I came out pretty late and was still very much not ‘out’ when I started as a consultant. I don’t think I ever really did have a big “coming out” at work, because after I did come out, I fairly quickly launched into LGBT+ advocacy work. I think it became pretty obvious to most people soon enough. I’m not subtle about it now! I think because I do now have a fairly visible public profile as an out LGBT+ doctor, it’s not something I have to consciously do very often. I’ve been lucky that it’s never been an issue with colleagues for me, though I’m very aware that for some LGBT+ doctors being visibly out can still be scary.

Where did the idea for NHS Rainbow Badges come from?

I came out late, even though I’d known I was gay since primary school. It was always something that I had to hide, because growing up in Thatcher’s Britain, we were always given the idea that being gay was “wrong” and something to be ashamed of. Having positive role models as a kid would have transformed my whole life, and I guess that was always the personal aspect of the project for me – to be the sort of person I wished I’d had to support me when I was younger.

That then ties into a much bigger issue for LGBT+ people in that we know that many LGBT+ people still feel nervous about accessing healthcare, because they’re worried about negative attitudes that are sadly still all too prevalent. The idea with the Rainbow Badge (the NHS logo superimposed on a pride flag on a wee pin badge) was simply that if someone was wearing one, they were signalling to LGBT+ people that they would be someone who understands a bit about the challenges LGBT+ people can face in healthcare, and would do their best to support and help. The reaction was hugely positive and we saw the project expand from a few hundred badges spread by Twitter and word of mouth, to a fully formed model that we developed at Evelina London, that was then taken up by hospitals across England. That was so successful, NHS England stepped in to take over and further develop it, and it’s now become part of a really robust initiative that helps hospitals to assess and improve the care and support they deliver to LGBT+ patients and staff.

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From the very beginning it was the stories about how people responded to the badges that really emphasised how much they meant to them.

In the time since we started the project though, we’ve seen attitudes towards LGBT+ people in this country become more hostile again, very much driven by parts of the right-wing press determined to make LGBT+ people – and trans people in particular – part of a culture war. That means we’ve seen the project come under attack just for standing up for LGBT+ people – it’s very weird seeing the initiative be misrepresented on front pages and in editorials in major newspapers as part of their own agendas. But it just emphasises how important work like this is and, from my perspective, makes me even more determined to advocate for LGBT+ young people in particular who often aren’t yet able to speak up for themselves – that idea again of being the sort of person I really needed when I was a teenager.

Do you have any advice to someone who is thinking of coming out, who is working in your field?

It’s one of the biggest regrets of my life that I came out so late; it meant I spent so much time and energy pretending to be someone I wasn’t, and not being my whole self. It was scary coming out, but it also made everything that really mattered better and I wish I’d done it sooner. I think UK medicine in general is a relatively safe space to be out, though there are definitely still pockets of negative attitudes. I think that’s more of an issue in some specialities than others, and some friends are doing brilliant work about making surgery, for example, a better place for LGBT+ doctors to be their whole selves. And while I think the only person we owe anything to about coming out is ourselves, I think it’s also really important there are visible LGBT+ role models in medicine, showing that it’s possible. “You cannot be what you do not see” as my very wise friend Dr Ronx often says, and they’re absolutely right.

Dr Michael Farquhar is a Consultant in Paediatric Sleep Medicine at Evelina London. The views expressed in this article are his own. You can follow Mike on Twitter/X and learn more about the NHS Rainbow Badges scheme here.

About Hadley Stewart

Hadley Stewart is Features Editor at Vada Magazine.