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Volunteer Spotlight - November 2023 - Professor Wasim Hanif

To mark Trustees’ Week on 6-10 November, we asked Professor Hanif, who sits on our Board of Trustees, about his experience.


Tell us about yourself and your background.

I’m a Professor of Diabetes at University Hospitals Birmingham and a consultant physician. I also have other academic appointments. I’m an Honorary Professor in Medicine at the University of Warwick and the Medical Director at Birmingham City University for Advanced Diabetes Course.

Along with that, I hold several other charity appointments, including being on the board of the BMJ (British Medical Journal), and a trustee of the South Asian Health Foundation, among others.

What made you choose to work in the field of diabetes in the first place?

That’s a difficult question, I think there are two or three reasons.

For a professional reason, I always like what I’d call the academic side of medicine. One thing about diabetes and endocrinology in general, it is one of the eclectic fields of medicine which involves a cerebral approach and diagnostic conundrum. That always appealed to me.

Also, diabetes and endocrinology is one of the fields that give you the broadest aspect of medicine because it covers the whole body system.

And it’s got a lot of research in it, lots of new things being found out. I’ve been part of amazing research and clinical trials. You do research and see the effect on your patients and it’s improving their lives, and that’s always been very inspiring.

On a personal basis, I come from a South Asian heritage, and diabetes is about three to five times more common in South Asian communities. My mum had diabetes, and I still remember her having to inject her own insulin in the ‘70s, when things weren’t that advanced. What’s inspiring about her is there were a lot of stigmas around diabetes, especially around injecting insulin in the ‘70s in the South Asian communities. But she used to inject in public while wearing her saree, which used to cause a bit of a shock.

And I saw my grandma, that was even worse, having to inject with the old glass needle and syringe. I was a small kid, and it was very fascinating to watch her do it.

And there’s a lot of patient empowerment, the patient managing the condition.

But I’ve also seen the ugly side of diabetes. I lost my mother at the young age of 60, as a complication of diabetes. Hence, I knew what this condition did, and I wanted to do something for people with diabetes because I could really identify with them.

"And one of the compliments I’ve had, someone said 'you always appear to be on our side'. I was always on the side of people with diabetes."

What inspired you to join the Board of Trustees for Diabetes UK?

It was about six or seven years ago. I was one of the founding members of the South Asian Health Foundation 24 years ago. One of its founding principles was to look at health inequalities among all populations, especially in terms of South Asian communities, but also what I call other non-white communities in the UK, and communities coming from poorer socioeconomic backgrounds.

At that time, Diabetes UK was doing some great work, but I felt health inequalities were not at the top of their agenda. I’d raised this at multiple levels, that the charity represents all people with diabetes, and that this condition was three to five times more likely to affect people from non-white backgrounds, and of lower socioeconomic status, that’s many people with diabetes.

I met the CEO of Diabetes UK at the time, Baroness Young, and in a nice way I challenged her. I asked “what are you doing about health inequalities? You’ve got to involve more people from different backgrounds.” And she said there was an opportunity coming up, why don’t I apply? I had lots of commitments, but I thought “no, I should give it a go” because this was a priority area. So I applied and joined the board.

During your time on the Board of Trustees, have there been any particular highlights or standout moments that you’re proud of?

There are many! The health inequalities work has made a big difference to the lives of many people, I’d call that my biggest achievement. We’ve done some amazing work on the Health Inequalities Commission, and the full report is being launched in November in Manchester. I was also responsible for a health inequalities research workshop with Professor Khunti, that’s been published in Diabetic Medicine. And Chris (Askew) took the health inequalities and EDI (Equality, Diversity and Inclusion) work very seriously, so we’ve probably got one of the most diverse boards for a charity in the UK.

My second biggest achievement is I was on the board when the DiRECT study was given the funding. We can be proud as a board that we were brave enough to commit £5m – at that time, a huge amount of money – for a single study. And DiRECT has been possible to bring about remission in type 2 diabetes.

The Tesco partnership was a big achievement for a charity, to work with a supermarket openly and transparently. And the Steve Morgan Foundation funding for type 1 diabetes is also a big achievement.

I always say one of the achievements of a trustee is that nothing major has happened, which means you’ve continued your governance and accountability, and transparency as a team.

Have there been any particular challenges during your time on the Board?

The biggest challenge is it takes a lot of time. If you want to do the job properly, the commitment is huge, and it’s purely voluntary, you’re giving up your own time. There’ve been pressures, personally and professionally. The time and pressure of work are quite big.

I was aware of the time commitment when I applied, as I was on the board for other things. Because I was so passionate about diabetes, I always knew that if I wanted to make a difference, I had to give a lot of my personal time.

Have you learned anything about yourself, or gained any particular skills by being a Trustee?

Yes, I think it’s been absolutely wonderful. One of the great things about being a trustee is the people you meet. I’m a physician, so most of my interactions are with other people in the health service. On the board there are people with backgrounds in finance, risk, media, and fundraising. You meet some amazing, high-profile people. In terms of finance and accounts, I hardly knew anything, so there’s alot that you learn. It not only helps in your role on the board, but in other things as well. It helped me to develop as a person.

What message would you have to anyone considering being a Trustee?

I think it’s a fantastic experience because you help to contribute a lot. There are some amazing trustees, a brilliant chair, we’ve got a new CEO and a fantastic executive team. I’d encourage anyone who wants to get board-level experience to come and work with Diabetes UK, it’s a brilliant organisation to work with.

If you want to become a trustee, be clear in your mind, it shouldn’t be a ‘tick box.’ You should have the right skills, but at the same time, the passion. You should passionately believe in the cause, especially for a condition like diabetes which is a long-term, lifelong condition, with lots of challenges and stigmas. You’ve got to have an openness and fairness of mind.

As your time on the board is coming to an end, what are you particularly looking forward to?

Diabetes UK is something I’ll continue to be passionate about. I’m actually looking for other roles. I’m an experienced trustee and I’ve had discussions with the CEO about how we can utilise me, there are lots of sub-committees, which are independent of the board. I’ll still be involved with Diabetes UK, it’s not going to be a clean break that I never go back to. And I’ve got many other things happening which I’ll continue to do.

We’ve got a fantastic Board, a lot of young, really enthusiastic people, but at the same time I’ve been talking to people about the board.  I was encouraging a very senior person at the South Asian Health Foundation conference last week to join and I’ll be using my contacts to get the right people on the board. I think Diabetes UK will continue to do a lot of good work in the future.

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