Alex McMahon, Chief Nursing Officer for Scotland

Alex McMahon is the Chief Nursing Officer for Scotland, working for the Scottish Government.

In this video, he explains how he got started as a nurse, what being Chief Nursing Officer entails, and why nursing is such a rewarding career.

Hello, I'm Alex McMahon. I'm the Chief Nursing Officer for Scotland, based at the Scottish Government here in Edinburgh.

I didn't initially want to be a nurse. I never even thought about it. One day at school, my guidance teacher said, ‘Alex, I think you would make a really good nurse,’ and just to appease her, I applied. In those days – this is 1983 – there was more than one intake a year. So, by good fortune, I got accepted and I started in nursing very quickly. So, my journey started in 1983, as I've said, as a student nurse doing mental health. 

As the Chief Nursing Officer for Scotland, it’s a very varied job. There's no typical day, as it were. A lot of my day, as you might expect, is spent in meetings. However, those meetings are all about health and social care in Scotland, so I'm often involved in policy discussions, how we shape policy for Scotland and also professional discussions – not just about nursing but also about midwifery and also allied healthcare professions and health scientists as well.

The best part of the day for me is usually morning. I like to get up early, so usually between about 7.00am and 8.30am is the best part, because that's time for me, time to get some emails cleared and get on with some work.

So, when people talk about the most important skills for being a nurse, they often think about the vocation, so they think about compassion, and empathy, and caring. But one of the other most important skills is communication. Being able to communicate with your patients, understand what matters to them in order to inform the care that they need and communicate that back to them.

I've had many proud moments in nursing over course my career because it's quite a long one. But one of the things I’m really proud of is when I worked in Scottish Government the first time as a professional nursing adviser in mental health that I had the opportunity to shape the mental health strategy of its time. Because for me, having started my career as a student mental health nurse and then working in mental health, to then have the opportunity to influence government policy and shape the delivery of mental health services across Scotland, was hugely rewarding.  

So, you might expect me to say this, but I think nursing is a fantastic career. As the Chief Nurse, you know, it's really incumbent upon me to want to recruit and retain as many nurses as possible. Nursing is a fantastic career. There are so many skills that you'll learn. There are so many good career opportunities and there are so many of those opportunities. You can move around jobs. You will eventually experience the job that matters most to you that you find most enjoyment in. So, please think about nursing. Enjoy your career in nursing and I'm sure it'll give you many rewards back.

Nursing is a very old profession. I won’t go as far back as Florence Nightingale. However,  it's important every year we recognise the role the nurses play in delivering care to people and that's why every year we have International Nurses’ Day.

This year enabling professionalism is really important to us, but also nurses are here for life. I think that's a really important theme because I cannot envisage health and social care of the future not involving nursing care. So, it's really important that we celebrate nursing and that we advertise it as a great career for people as well.


Why did you decide to become a nurse?

I didn't initially want to be a nurse. I never even thought about it. One day at school, my guidance teacher said, ‘Alex, I think you would make a really good nurse,’ and just to appease her, I applied.

Where did your nursing journey start?

In those days – this is 1983 – there was more than one intake a year. So, by good fortune, I got accepted and I started in nursing very quickly. So, my journey started in 1983 as a student nurse working in mental health.

Can you tell us what a typical day is like for you?

As the Chief Nursing Officer for Scotland, it’s a very varied job so there is no typical day. A lot of my day, as you might expect, is spent in meetings. However, those meetings are all about health and social care in Scotland, so I'm often involved in policy discussions – how we shape policy for Scotland. I’m also involved in professional discussions – not just about nursing, but about midwifery, allied healthcare professions and health scientists as well.

I like to get up early, so the best part of my day is usually between about 7.00am and 8.30am. This is the time where I can clear some emails and get on with my work.

What would you say are the most important skills for a nurse?

When people talk about the most important skills for being a nurse, they often think about the vocation – so they think about compassion, empathy and caring. But one of the other most important skills is communication. If you are able to communicate with your patients and understand what matters to them, this informs the care that they need, and you can communicate that back to them.

What makes you proud to be a nurse?

I've had many proud moments in nursing over course my career because it's been quite a long one. But one of the things I’m really proud of is when I worked in Scottish Government as a professional nursing adviser in mental health. In that role, I had the opportunity to shape the mental health strategy of the time.

Having started my career as a student mental health nurse, and then working in mental health, to have the opportunity to influence government policy and shape the delivery of mental health services across Scotland was hugely rewarding.  

What advice would you give to others thinking about becoming a nurse?

You might expect me to say this, but I think nursing is a fantastic career. There are so many skills that you'll learn. There are so many good career opportunities. You have the ability to move around the country, in different jobs. Eventually you will experience the job that matters most to you and that you find most enjoyment in. So, please think about nursing. Enjoy your career in nursing and I'm sure it'll give you many rewards back.

Nurses are here for life because….

Nursing is a very old profession. It's important every year that we recognise the role that nurses play in delivering care to people and that's why every year we have International Nurses’ Day.

This year enabling professionalism is really important to us, but also saying that nurses are here for life. I think that's a really important theme because I cannot envisage health and social care of the future not involving nursing care. So, it's really important that we celebrate nursing and that we advertise it as a great career as well.

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