What Next for General Practice?

Last week, I had a sixth form student spend the week with me. She is hoping to go to medical school and is gaining the necessary work experience ahead of her applications. It was so great to be able to share with her the variance of my work and the great privilege it is to be a GP in the community. On the first day, we saw people with all kinds of problems, often interlinked or overlapping. She was amazed by how well I know my patients, not just the conditions they have, but them as people and the complexities of their lives. At Ash Trees Surgery, the practice where I am a partner, we run personal lists, in which we as GPs always see the same set of patients, supported by 2 other doctors, for times when one of us is not around. It gives us the opportunity of building fantastic therapeutic relationships with the people we serve and we get to know them really well. Our patients love it, we love it, and it has been a ‘traditional model’ of General Practice in our local community.

 

However, things are changing (not immediately in our case, but faster than perhaps we would like), and we (as GPs) and people generally, are going to have to get used to it, not just in Carnforth, but across the whole of the UK. I’m not writing this blog post as an idealist, but as a pragmatist. There are many things I wish were not changing, but we are reaching a point at which the scales are tipping and things simply cannot remain as they have been. Many GPs know this already and are making bold and difficult decisions to try and work differently, but many of us keep harking back to yesteryear and wishing we could turn the clocks back.

 

The issues facing us are stark:

 

1) We simply will not have enough GPs within the next 5 years to carry on working in the ways we have done. 40% of current GPs will be retiring within the next 5 years or moving into other work. (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/science/2017/07/30/nearly-40-per-cent-gps-plan-leave-nhs-within-five-years/).

 

2) The promise of 5000 more GPs will simply not come to fruition and certainly not in the time frame needed. Actually, a plan is afoot to replace some of the GPs with ‘Physician Associates’, people who have a science or allied degree, who have then done a conversation course and can do some (but certainly not all) of the work of a GP. They will also neeed supervision by GPs. Health Education England are having to cut GP training in order to make way for this new breed of health care workers (yet unproven). The Royal College welcomes the development as a support, but not a replacement of GPs. (http://www.pulsetoday.co.uk/your-practice/practice-topics/education/gp-training-cuts-necessary-to-allow-hee-to-develop-physician-associates/20034643.article#.WUrZgli-YHU.twitter)

 

3) The new generation of GPs, do not want to become partners and therefore the old partnership model will soon become entirely unsustainable. The results of a recent survey, carried out by Pulse of GP Trainers about the future careers aspirations of their trainees is pretty stark:

Only 6% said their trainees wanted to go into partnerships;
49% said their trainees wanted to become locums;
28% said their trainees wanted to go abroad
30% said their trainees wanted to find a salaried post;
4% said their trainees wanted to change career.

 

So, in summary, the older GPs are retiring, we’re not recruiting enough new GPs and those we are recruiting, simply don’t want to work in the ways we have been used to.

 

The Five Year Forward View has been trying to encourage us all to reimagine General Practice and how we might hold true to the values of this bedrock of the NHS, whilst adapting towards the future that is coming. I think we have some options, and GPs need to think clearly and carefully about which direction they want to head in. But even more importantly, the people of the UK need to recognise that change is afoot and GPs are simply unable to work as we have done previously. The demand is too great and the resource simply is not there to carry on as we were.

 

The first option, is for GPs to bury their heads in the sand and hope that all this might not be true, to become more entrenched in their position and wait for things to be done to them. I believe this will be harmful for General Practice itself, as it will mean a decrease in resources, an increasingly burdensome workload and significant burnout. But I also believe it is detrimental to the NHS as a whole. We neeed to break down the barriers that have divided us and work more holistically across what is a very complex system. Waving the flag of traditional General Practice is admirable in some ways, but I think it might prevent us from stepping into the future that the nation now needs from its NHS.

 

The second option is for GPs to federate with other practices, keeping hold of some of what they love, (a perceived sense of autonomy, the ability to run their own business, to stay part of a smaller team) whilst benefiting from sharing some functions like training, recruitment and maybe some staff with other practices. We have done this in Morecambe Bay (thanks to the Stirling work of Rahul Keith, John Miles, Lauren Butler, Richard Russell, Graham Atkinson, Chris Coldwell et al).  However, the federated model has to be given true commitment and financial support or it will accomplish very little. Practices cannot go back to competitive mindsets or taking care of their own needs first. It requires a bigger heart and a more open mind with genuine behavioural change.

 

The third option is to form super-practices. We have two in our area now (Bay Medical Group in Morecambe – > 60000 patients  and Lancaster Medical Practice >50000 – also both part of our federation). There are some huge advantages in working “at scale”, but it is not easy and certainly not a smooth transition. GPs have to learn to trust each other and be willing to have difficult conversations around buildings, drawings, policies etc, let alone learning to work differently. But more than that it is very hard to learn how to deliver really good General Practice in a personal way, whilst trying to reconfigure the team and establishing a really good culture. However, this model definitely allows new ways of working to be more easily acheivable, if given appropriate OD support. Some recent work done in Gosport and showcased by the King’s Fund showed that perhaps only 9% of people who phone asking to see a GP actually need to see a GP. The reality is that people have become used to seeing their GP, but often they could be seen and treated more effectively by a pharmacist, a nurse, a nurse practitioner, a physiotherapist, a mental health worker, a physician associate or a health coach. Perhaps GPs need to let go, whilst patients learn to trust the expertise of others? How do we transition to this kind of approach without losing that amazing knowledge of a community and complex social dynamics, often held by a GP? How does a Multi-Disciplinary team function effectively for the best care possible for patients in such a dynamic? We are in danger of losing something very precious, but can we somehow hold onto it in a different way?

 

The fourth option is to allow a “take-over” and become a more active player in an Accountable Care Organisation. The take-over approach is not straightforward, but I’m not sure it is as terrible as it appears to many GP colleagues. What if an acute trust set up a separate company, lead by a GP as medical director, who understood and held the true values of General Practice in his/her heart (as they have done in Yeovil – https://www.england.nhs.uk/blog/paul-mears-berge-balian/)? The company, run by General Practitioners, holding true to the core delivery of General Practice, without all the difficulties of running a business, HR issues, estates, etc etc but with all the benefits of shared IT systems, easier access to scans, no duplication of work and direct access to services without all the current clunkiness, not to mention protected admin time! What if the salary was right and the dross was removed? What is it exactly that would not be appealing about this? It is interesting to me. Only a couple of years ago I would have been utterly opposed to this idea, but having given it thought and time over several months, exploring the possibilities involved, I’m in the place of thinking that the benefits probably outweigh the negatives both for GPs and our patients.

 

What we need right now is for us all to accept that the NHS, as we have known it is no longer functioning in a way that meets the need of the population we seek to serve. We know we need a greater emphasis on prevention and population health (I have blogged on this many times before and will do so again!). We also know that the system itself is vastly complex and is in need of major reform and reconfiguration. We need this not only for the people who use the NHS, but for those of us who work in it and are in danger of serious burn out. I hope with all my heart that General Practice does not drag its feet and prevent the revolution that is needed. Our case for more resource and more recognition of the fabulous work we do will only gain favour, if we also show that we are willing to be a part of the whole and a part of the change that must ensue.

 

 

 

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Building a Culture of Kindness in the NHS

My morning surgery began today with a patient of mine, who works as  Health Care Assistant (or Band 3) in our local acute hospital trust. As we find across the board in the NHS right now, there are pressures in her department with under-staffing and a very high and demanding work load. She started her day in tears, telling me about the sleepless nights, but even more so about the lack of support she is feeling in her work environment. She feels unable to understand why huge fees are paid to find locum consultants, when posts are not covered, but money cannot be found for the absence of staff at her level, when the numbers are down, leading to an increased pressure and low morale.

 

Now, this is not a criticism of the acute trust we partner with every day, because I actually know all too well the situation here, how complex it can be and just how dedicated to caring for staff the leadership of the trust are. However, when we read in the press today about sickness absence for stress among paramedics, and if I were to detail more stories about the number of cases I am currently dealing with as a GP about stress in the workplace for ALL grades of staff in the NHS and social care setting, then we have to face up to the fact that we have a problem. Stress in the workplace and low morale in our teams is not a problem we can afford to ignore. It not only causes high sickness rates, which then increases the pressure on teams, with knock on financial implications to the system; it also causes significant compassion fatigue (i.e. staff are literally less able to care about or for their patients), because they are emotionally overwhelmed, under-resourced and therefore become more numb, disengaged and unkind and this is detrimental to patient care.

 

The problem is actually really complex, but it is, in my opinion, primarily cultural, and particularly affects the lower pay-grades of staff, because they feel and are in fact less able, to influence change. If we do not develop a culture of kindness towards our own teams and have a sea-change within our working environments in terms of how we care for each other, we will only see the problems go from bad to worse. So, how do we create a culture of kindness, a culture of honour, a culture of wellbeing?

 

I would like to suggest six things (all beginning with H – the 6Hs), which are fairly simple, but make a massive difference to how teams function and therefore the morale within those teams:

 

  1. Humanity – First, we must recognise that hierarchy has the inbuilt tendency to de-humanise us. As we get higher in the pyramidal systems in which we work, we can easily lose our humility and compassion towards others as we have to cope with the greater demands from “above us” and if we’re not careful we can turn into slave drivers. Top down, controlling leadership is detrimental to good morale and stifles teams from working effectively.  There is a famous, ancient parable (told in the New Testament) about an unmerciful manager, who owed a huge amount of money to his master/CEO. The CEO called him to account and threatened to fire him. However, he begged for mercy and the master cancelled his debt and gave him a fresh chance. However, this same manager then went and found all the people who owed something to him, and instead of paying forward the mercy he had received, treated his own debtors shamefully, despite their begging and pleading for mercy. When the CEO found out about this, the manager was duly fired. I wonder how often we tolerate ‘bullying’ by managers, because they ‘run a tight ship’, without calculating the cost of this style of management on our teams and the patients we serve? Changing culture is hard. Even if the CEO sets a good culture, any one of us can bring a negative influence in the area we work. We have to make a conscious choice to keep our kindness switched on. As we climb the ladder of responsibility, we must continue to act with humanity. We must also remember that it works the other way round – we can start dehumanising those in leadership positions ‘above us’, or those who work in different teams. We make terribly unfair assumptions about people all the time. A little bit of understanding, kindness and compassion goes a HUGE way in treating each other with kindness instead of suspicion.
  2. Humility – For those in leadership, there can be a tendency to forget that when we were in in ‘lower’ positions, we often felt the same low morale and pressure from those ‘above us’. Leadership requires that we keep our love and compassion switched on towards those who we now lead. This means we must really learn to listen, and that means having the humility to recognise where we have been getting it wrong. If we are not prepared to change, then we are not really listening. It takes courage to create a culture in which we can receiving a challenge from those in our team and be able to make a change and not just use our position to squash the person who dared to speak out. It takes even more guts to admit where we have been wrong, say sorry and move forward differently.
  3. Help – one of the very worst things that can happen in any team dynamic is when we hear the words ‘it’s not my job’. I hear it so often and it makes me sad! We must never think we are above any task – whether that is cleaning up a mess, wiping a patient’s bum or picking up some litter. We must simply help each other out. But we also need the humility to admit when we are struggling and actually ask for help. We encounter terrible and unspeakable trauma at times, or may simply be going through tough personal circumstances. Sometimes, we need the humility to recognise where we are not coping, where we are struggling, when we’re not functioning and ask for help. And when we ask for help we need to have the confidence that we will encounter the humanity of those around us to help us at our time of need.
  4. Honour – Sometimes a situation may not be able to change, but in these situations the very worst thing leaders can do is close ranks, shut communication down and raise the levels of demand. No, vulnerability, openness and honesty, sharing the reality of the situation and communicating clearly why things cannot change currently at least allows the team to pull together and face the situation as one. However, there must be a very clear challenge here – Yanis Varoufakis puts it so well in his book “And The Weak Suffer What they Must” – we have to remember just how crippling powerlessness can be. Like my patient this morning, she has no access to the ‘powers’ or to the ‘purse strings’. She cannot up and leave, she simply can’t afford to, and so she works under huge pressure for very little pay, powerless to enact change, other than to put in place her own boundaries. A cultural shift towards a culture of kindness is to ensure that those with the least ‘honour’ are treated the most honourably. Leadership is about being able to take the hit, not self-protectionism at the cost of ones team. It is absolutely amazing just how far the words ‘Thank You’ can go, to keeping this sense of honour alive.
  5. Health – (by health, I mean wellbeing in its widest sense) – we have to actually care for the people around us. We have developed a culture in the NHS and social care where we will do all we can to care for our patients/clients, but will break the backs of ourselves or our teams in the process, which is actually entirely self-defeating! It is impossible to care for others well, when you are feeling exhausted and broken! I have said it on this blog before and I will say it many times again: we have to develop a sense of the health and wellbeing of the people in our teams. We need time in the craziness and business of each day to stop the mad rushing, be still and take notice/be mindful/be heartful. We all need time to get up off our chairs and stretch and be more active – #runamile every day (it only takes 15 minutes). We need time to connect with each other (do we really take time to know the people we spend an inordinate amount of time with and alongside and check they are actually doing OK?), to eat well, stay hydrated and keep learning, so we don’t feel overwhelmed. Building these as an absolute priority into our daily work routines is vital, especially as pressures increase. The tendency is that when the going gets tough, our health gets significantly worse. We must learn to protect this in the midst of our business, or we will suffer the consequences in multiple ways.
  6. Hope – there is an ancient proverb that says: “hope deferred makes the heart sick, but hope coming is a tree of life.”  Hopelessness takes root when we feel that nothing can ever change and we feel powerless to influence anything. Hope is born when we develop ways of working in which teams can work together on solutions to the problems they are encountering, rather than being dictated to from on high in a unrelational way. Hope is about being able to sense that the future is alive with possibility. It is a life line when things are tough, when the tunnel is long and dark – just a little glimpse of light – and then faith builds that together we can get there.

 

Not difficult. Actually pretty straight forward. We don’t need unkindness or low morale in our work places. We don’t want to be suffering with compassion fatigue because we are physically and emotionally drained and running on empty. We really can create the kind of culture we want to see and experience in the NHS and social care – a culture of kindness – sounds nice doesn’t it?! All it takes is for us to remember humanity, humility, help, honour, health and hope.

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