The 61-year-old MSP for Airdrie and Shotts, who took over the position from Nicola Sturgeon this week, was quick to admit he is "following in very big footsteps".
He brushed off the idea that Sturgeon, now in charge of the independence referendum, has moved on just as the squeeze caused by real terms budget cuts is really beginning to bite the NHS.
But he did list "budgetary constraints" as one of the two biggest challenges he faces, the other being the growing elderly population.
The number of nurses and midwives employed by NHS Scotland has dropped by more than 2000 in three years and some health boards plan to axe more jobs this year, so Neil can expect to be repeatedly questioned about cuts to frontline staff.
He pointed out it was a mixed picture with some health boards investing in nurses, but added: "I am absolutely determined to ensure where there are any proposals to change the staffing mix or number that it is not going to affect adversely the quality or quantity of provision for the population."
Just weeks ago he called for better standards of care at Monklands Hospital, which is based in his own constituency, after receiving numerous complaints including one about a patient relying on her visitors to change her bedding. Neil said he had met with the acting chief executive of NHS Lanarkshire (before his promotion) and received a firm commitment such problems were being dealt with.
On issues a little further from home – such as poorer access to some of the latest cancer medicines in Scotland compared to other parts of the UK – he understandably needs more time to "get up to speed".
Audit Scotland's probe into the veracity of the health board's waiting list results, prompted by NHS Lothian fiddling the data to conceal thousands of patients who were queuing too long for treatment, should soon be on his desk. Neil said: "I am determined to make sure the figures are open, accurate and transparent. We have set very challenging targets on waiting times. I am happy if a chief executive or a board comes to me and says 'we have a problem here because we are finding it difficult to meet the targets'. I would much rather they did that and be open and straight-forward about it."
Minister sets out his top priorities for job
UNBORN children and babies in the first months of life are among the top priorities of the new Cabinet Secretary for Health and Wellbeing
Alex Neil, MSP for Airdrie and Shotts, who took the on job this week following a surprise reshuffle, said he was "very keen" to discuss what more could be done to help Scotland's youngest – and improve their chances for life.
Neil spoke of research showing how the future prospects of children are influenced by the nurture they receive in the womb and when they are first born.
He said a new strategy was needed to respond to the findings.
Sir Harry Burns, Scotland's chief medical officer, has long stressed parenting in the early years is vital both for the physical and mental health of children as they grow up.
In 2009 his annual report outlined a theory that some children learn they can manage stressful situations, for example by crying when their nappy needs changing, while children who are neglected find the world confusing and unmanageable. At the time Burns argued this had far-reaching consequences and quoted a study which showed adults maltreated as children were more susceptible to diabetes, heart attacks and strokes.
Neil, previously Infrastructure and Capital Investment Secretary, met with Burns in this role which encompassed housing and city regeneration.
He said: "I am very keen to pursue the agenda being actively and professionally pursued by Sir Harry Burns on the importance and the consequences of the research that shows how important now the period in the womb and the first six months of life are to anyone's life chances."
Neil continued: "I will be sitting down with the chief medical officer and looking at how we can do more to ensure that the support and services and quality of services right throughout Scotland are there for these children.
"Harry Burns's research tells us that we do not just need to think in terms of early years but in terms of early months. It is as important as that. We need to develop a medium to long-term strategy for how we deal with that."
Mr Neil said the benefits would not be seen for 10 or 20 years.
Dr James Boardman, senior lecturer in neonatal medicine at Edinburgh University, said breast-feeding, taking babies for vaccinatios and using vitamin D supplements were associated with better prospects while living in poverty had been linked to poorer health consequences: "A lot of the problems are getting worse so a long-term strategy that is well informed by research would be really important."