Professor Alison Britton specialises in public healthcare, clinical negligence, mental-health law and professional ethics. She tells David Christie how this role has taken her to Holyrood.
In fact, GCU’s Professor of Healthcare and Medical Law wears many hats at work, teaching LLB students, chairing disciplinary committees, ensuring departmental research ethics are followed, advising students, the list goes on. Then there’s her role as Convenor for the Law Society of Scotland’s Health and Medical Law Sub-committee.
Her expertise means regular trips to Edinburgh to speak at the Scottish Parliament, helping to shape policy thinking on major medical matters.
“Prior to GCU I had a spell working as a legal lobbyist, which was a great way to see the political side,” explains Alison, a Newton Mearns native now living, running and walking her German Shepherd Bo, in nearby Shawlands.
“At that time, the Scottish Parliament was just coming into being and it opened up an area I’d never considered before, which has stayed with me ever since.
“We’re in an interesting position in 2017 in first-world economies, where we can screen for so much stuff we can’t cure. Ethically, what should you do with that information? Who should have access to it when you consider it could ruin a person’s career and turn their life upside down?”
Alison found her calling after a minor hiccup spent “sporting a mini-kilt and putting rosettes on romagnola bulls” while working for the Bank of Scotland. Inspired by a lecturer at the University of Glasgow, where she graduated with an LLB and MPhil in Law & Ethics in Medicine, it’s a subject in which she is now irrevocably immersed.
It has seen her lecture doctors on the ethics of prescribing Viagra, debate whistleblowing in the NHS and explore the regulation of legal highs. Currently, she lists her top three priorities as organ donation opt-out, closely followed by Brexit and end of life choices.
“The nice thing for me is what might be in the top three at the moment, in another couple of months something else completely different will come up.
I can’t think of another subject that gives you this diversity, so here I am 25 years later and it’s still my passion.
“Everybody has an interest in health. You could specialise in conveyancing or company law, but never see the cross-section of humanity. We all have concerns about our health at some point of our lives and how we access and prioritise healthcare is a mirror reflection on society.”
Joining GCU in 2001 when the University established an LLB, Alison created healthcare law modules for third and fourth-year students, who now benefit greatly from her political connections.
“Students are able to get the inside track on the latest legal developments and, if I get a call to give evidence at the Scottish Parliament, I make sure they all get tickets to see it first-hand. If students are researching a subject I’m not directly involved in, I now know enough MSPs and advisers to get the students some pretty good interviewees.
“It actually all happens organically and the students, by the time they’ve elected to do this subject, are very proactive. Some of their work has even been published.”
Such is Alison’s zest for the subject, healthcare policy considerations are not the sole reserve of her and her students.
“I have been known to pose some unusual questions around the dinner table,” admits Alison.
“My husband is a computer programmer, so everything for him is black or it’s white, then I come home with ‘ifs, buts and maybes’.
He has been treated to ‘should your sperm be extracted without your consent?’ and ‘what do you think about abortion regimes?’ while he’s tucking into his fish supper.
“My daughter is a biologist, so she’s happier to have these conversations and my son has just finished a Law degree here at GCU. To be able to have kept my job going, my family have been inordinately supportive.”
So what’s next for the ants-in-the-pants Professor? “I’m training for the Stirling Marathon, and then trekking to Everest base camp, but before all that there’s a Law Society response to the Scottish Parliament’s consultation on soft opt-out for organ donation.”