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Editor's blog 6 June 2009: Bob Sang RIP

It is with huge sadness that I write about the death of Bob Sang yesterday. Bob was 61.

His particular specialism was in patient and public invovlement and engagement in health and social care, and in facilitation of this. Bob was working in this area long before it was fashionable, let alone a statutory duty.

He worked in academia and at the Kings Fund, before setting up his independent consultancy Sang Jacobsson. He was a strategic advisor to and latterly an honorary member of the Patients' Association. He co-facilitated the Engaging Communities Learning Network for the National Primary and Care Trusts (NatPaCT) development programme, which later evolved into NHS Networks.

Bob was the UK's first professor of patient and public involvement at South Bank University, and published widely. Recently, Bob was special advisor to the Health Select Committee Inquiry into Patient and Public Involvement in Health.

Bob was also a wonderful man and a great friend. To go to any NHS event with Bob, or meet him at the Kings Fund, was to see a man with contacts everywhere. He believed in networking, not in the careerist sense but in introducing people with common interests. He was a connector.

His personal warmth and charm were considerable, but he would stand and fight for principle. He also had a great radar for cant and for the domineering, and would not let them go unchallenged.

He was great company: insightful, witty and creative. Devoted to his wife Lisa and children and grandchild, Bob was a man of clear values and immense integrity.

I first met Bob while I was editing British Journal of Healthcare Management, and often published his work, both there and elsewhere. Recently, Bob gave me a new article for this site. It is not clear whether it is his last article, but it is certainly among them.

I had the privilege of working with Bob on several projects, including one without which I am sure that my move into freelance working would have failed. I owe him an immense debt for his support, advice, encouragement and help.

Bob lived a full life and a good life, and I am lucky to have known him.

I will miss Bob Sang more than I can say.

Tributes to Bob Sang

Tributes from Bob's friends and colleagues:
Harry Cayton, Council for Healthcare Regulatory Excellence - "Bob was a gentle giant of public engagement; consistent, persistent and generous of mind and person. We'll miss him".

Rick Stern, Primary Care Foundation and NHS Alliance - "Bob had a compassion and interest in other people and their lives in a way that was unusual and affecting. I would always come away from meeting up with Bob with a slightly different view of the world. Although he loved developing and shaping ideas, they were always steeped in personal experience: both his own and of all the people he met and had touched him in some way.  His integrity and his passion shone through".

Dr Phil Hammond, GP, writer and broadcaster - "Bob was extraordinarily wise, knowledgeable, funny and positive. He was the voice of patient and public involvement, and never shied away from difficult issues. He once described himself to me as a 'constructive subversive', which is something to which we should all aspire. The NHS will be poorer without him".

David Crepaz-Keay, Head of Patient and Public Involvement, Mental Health Foundation - "I worked with Bob a number of times over the years. He was one of the few mental health service users I knew and worked with who brought genuine patient involvement and personal experience out of the ghetto and into mainstream political, academic and philosophical thinking. He contributed a lot to my own personal and academic development and it was always a joy to work or spend time with Bob".

Jean Trainor, Health Links - "I have known Bob for about 12 years. What struck me most about him was his humanity; his absolute commitment to the NHS and the rights of patients; and the fact that he never seemed to lose faith in it all. He was kind and true".

John Flook, independent financial consultant - "I got to know Bob when I began to build a portfolio career in healthcare. Bob led a series of seminars, and I did the 'futures' session. It was a new venture for me, and I greatly appreciated the advice and support that Bob gave me. His constructive nature and positive outlook certainly gave me much encouragement and a belief in my ability to tackle new ground.

"He was a thouroughly genuine bloke - committed to doing things because they were the right things to do; not because it might provide some personal advantage. He cared deeply about the disadvantaged, the less well-off and those who did not enjoy fair access to their rights. He set an example for those who knew him. We will miss him".

Michael Sobanja, chief executive, NHS Alliance - "This is very sad news. Bob was a good man and a great ally".

Simon Williams, Expect Health community interest company - "Bob was an inspiration and will be deeply, sadly missed."

Steve Collins, National Specialised Commissioning Group, DH - "It’s hard to imagine an NHS without Bob.  He was a close work colleague and a friend.  He has been really key to some major pieces of work that I am doing and have done; but mainly, I feel an awful sense of loss – his boyish smile and infectious laugh, his wise counsel and lateral perspective, his awesome contact list (of course), but mainly his lovely personality and friendship.

"The Service will never be the same again."

Jeanne Hardacre, independent consultant - "Part of Bob’s unique legacy is a genuine belief amongst thousands of people he worked with that we must continue to constructively challenge the system where it appears to be less than patient-oriented. Bob was passionate and relentless in his quest to have this (sometimes unwelcome) message heard at all levels of the system. His family was his other passion; he always spoke with palpable warmth and joy about his wife, children and grandchildren".

Brendan O'Rourke, Training Manager Expert Patient Programme community interest company - "Bob, your energy, breadth of experience and most of all your commitment to people with long-term conditions will be sadly missed".

Beryl Furr, non-executive director, NHS South East Essex PCT - "If we’re lucky, we sometimes meet someone who gives so much more than he takes out of life. Bob was that man, and his loss is immeasurable".

Kate Lorig, Patient Education Research Centre, Department of Medicine at the Stanford University School of Medicine, USA – “This is a story from my Jewish tradition. There once was a town band. Unfortunately, their trumpet player was always a note or two above and ahead of the rest of the band. There was nothing to be done. One day he died, and went to play in the heavenly band. Here he played just as he always had, but was right on key and in time.

“Bob was like this. Always a note or two higher and ahead. I will miss him”.

Ken Jarrold, Dearden Consulting – “I knew Bob for about 20 years and worked with him on a number of projects starting with the MESOL (Management Education Scheme by Open Learning) learning materials.

I had a very high regard for Bob - in particular for his curiosity, his lively intellect, his warmth, his sense of fun and his strong values.  Bob was one of the good guys, and he will be very badly missed”.

Jane Keep, independent coach and facilitator - "Bob worked ceaselessly with drive and determination for the plight of the patient, and to enable the patient voice in health and healthcare services. He worked with thoughtfulness in the way he connected those working in and around health, using his extensive networks. He always offered support, taking time for all with whom he came into contact".

Candy Morris, chief executive, NHS South Coast strategic health authority – “'I've known Bob as a colleague and friend for over eight years, and have treasured his wisdom and rich insights - even when uncomfortable! I've always enjoyed his early morning calls with 'just three thoughts …', as well as our regular swapping of thoughts over a glass of wine. His authenticity, rigour and passion will be hugely missed by so many people”.

Dr Brian Fisher GP, director, PAERS and PPI lead, NHS Alliance – “Bob was an amazing man. He always lifted my spirits and made me feel the next step was possible. He harnessed his depression in such a way that it made it easier to feel with him and for him. And he was so rare – a man in whom feeling and emotion was an integral part of his understanding of the world and of work.

“He had a visual mind – he would always see situations in terms of a diagram. As I talked with him about some knotty problem, there would bloom on the paper between us circles, squares, arrows and stick people who, between them, would explain what the current problem was and how we should move forwards. The diagrams always made sense at the time …

“He will be sadly missed. I will miss him”.

Stephen Thornton, chief executive, Health Foundation - "Bob was a loyal and thoughtful friend of the Health Foundation. For the last decade he offered his insights and his gentle, persuasive steer to our work on leadership development and on engaging patients in healthcare quality. He proffered me much personal support, standing quietly by me in times of trouble. He found opportunities to challenge and inform me, but always with the utmost grace and patience. He was simply a delight to work with, and I will miss him greatly."

Angela Greatley, chief executive, Sainsbury Centre for Mental Health - "Bob was a pleasure to work with. His commitment, his good humour and his openness were defining characteristics of a man who helped to make health services better and more responsive to us, the people who use them. His dedication to that cause and his passion for better healthcare made him a great advocate for the voice of the service user. His contribution to this cause will greatly be missed.”

Bec Hanley, independent consultant, TwoCan Associates  - “I loved Bob's integrity, his generosity and his incredibly enthusiastic capacity for networking. Like many people, I benefited from Bob's knack of linking people and projects together - he always did this in such an unselfish way. It was a real privilege to work with him”.

Pippa Hague, management consultant, SMS Management & Technology - "Bob was a man who carried himself with integrity, passion and intelligence in all that he did. Professionally, Bob pushed us all to be the best that we could be and made us strive to become the ethical backbone of the NHS, ensuring patients and the public were at the centre of policy decision-making and service delivery.

"Personally, Bob was an inspiration to me on many levels: he forced me to apply my intellect to problem-solving; he challenged me to always do what is right rather than what is easy; he introduced me to some of the most interesting people I have met and had a knack for bringing together the right people at the right time to make stuff happen. I will remember him as a master networker – we would often say that in the real world, there is the principle of six degrees of separation. With Bob, it was down to three.

"I will remember the sparkle in his eyes when he was facilitating a good group; the energy, passion and trust he drew out of others. But mainly I will remember the long evening conversations over a table filled with great people, laughter and tapas. To all the rest of Bob's friends, family and colleagues, I send my love in this time of loss".

Jean Thompson, Talking Health Network – “I knew Bob through my work in putting the person with a long-term health condition in the driving seat when managing their health. He was a true friend of lay-led self-management: someone with whom I could bounce ideas and share hopes and fears about policies and practice - particularly when the two seemed at odds with one another”.

Katherine Andrews, fundraising manager, The Prince's Trust – “Bob was such a huge influence in my life and treated me with such respect at all times.  I know I'm only one of many who's life was changed for the better by meeting this wonderful, warm man”.

Ed Rosen, Institute for Strategic Leadership and Service Innovation, London Sputh Bank University – “Bob used to use his hands in an extraordinary way. As I watched his hands move, I could almost feel him shaping an idea out of thin air! I will miss that the most; almost as much as the 'Hiya!' that would greet me either from the other end of a mobile or from a doorway or street. I now think that mobiles were invented for Bob: sometimes he seemed to be permanently attached to one.

“So how did it all begin? One sunny summer day in Elephant and Castle where I was introduced to the newly appointed Professor of Patient and Public Involvement in Health. Bob was really chuffed with this appointment at London South Bank University, as it provided him with an opportunity to reach back into South London's history and yank out a brilliant nugget, which was the Peckham Health Centre. He enthused about Peckham in his inaugural professorial lecture.

“Bob had a shed-load of chutzpah, which he reminded us about last Tuesday, the last time I saw him. He said ‘don't ask permission first; but if it doesn't work, ask for forgiveness later’.

“Bob sang for most of his life and for some of us lucky ones, we had a chance to sing with him”.

Duncan Selbie, chief executive, Brighton and Sussex University Hospitals NHS Trust - "Bob Sang, England’s first Professor of patient and public involvement, believed passionately in the NHS, and he translated that passion into a fervour and commitment to improving it.  He was a true pioneer who was talking about the importance of involving patients and the public in designing and improving health services at a time when such ideas were met with apathy and even derision.

"But like all true pioneers, rather than being deterred by a less-than-positive response, he kept going, finding new ways of presenting his ideas and pushing his cause until people started to listen.  He relentlessly articulated the importance and value of talking and listening, to each other and to the patients and public who use our services, and can rightfully take much of the credit for transforming a minority view into the unquestionable principle and statutory requirement it is today".

Thurstine Basset, Basset Consultancy Ltd – “When the railway was briefly named as 'Network South East' we all thought this was a good title for Bob since he conducted so many informal seminars and discussion groups on the trains to and from Victoria and London Bridge - I particularly remember one on stress at work where he had over half the carriage involved!

“I shall always remember his smile, his energy and his unchanging principles of inclusion and empowerment. In particular, on one day back in the 1980s, I had had an extraordinary meeting in the morning which filled me with alarm about the direction services were going in and the amoral attitude of some of the more senior people involved in the NHS. I met Bob that afternoon (by chance at Victoria Station). He strode across the concourse with a big smile on his face and after 10 minutes of our meeting, I felt assured that all was not lost. 'Thank God for Bob', I remember thinking at the time”.

Julia Baronness Neuberger – “Well, all I can say is that like everyone else who has written about Bob, I loved him; he could drive me mad; he really cared; and he was unwaveringly brave and committed to patient involvement ... in his short 61 years, he changed things for people, especially vulnerable people”.

Maureen Dale, Carer and Patient Involvement, NHS South of Tyne and Wear - "Bob was a star. Like a star, he was light years ahead of me; like a star he guided me through challenges; and like a star, he will continue to inspire me for a long time to come".