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To talk or to tweet? The power of individual conversations versus the media

Annabelle Machin is a First 5 GP, WiseGP and WISDOM fellow and CPCS tutor. She is on Twitter: @drannabellerose

Whilst examining a patient this week, they asked if I had been at the practice for long. When I explained that I’d been working there since 2017, they exclaimed, “I must be the first you’ve seen face to face since 2017, then!”

As we’ve emerged from various lockdowns, large parts of the media have intensified a negative rhetoric against GPs. It’s particularly wounding when the criticism comes from colleagues working in the hospital, who clearly don’t all understand the pressures we face. Some patients have been so convinced by misleading headlines, they’ve been shocked to see me still working after 6pm! These attacks are demoralising, put off medical students from becoming GPs and hasten the retirement of our experienced colleagues, who leave with a wealth of knowledge that can’t be replaced.

These attacks are demoralising, put off medical students from becoming GPs and hasten the retirement of our experienced colleagues, who leave with a wealth of knowledge that can’t be replaced.

This comes at a time when GP numbers have fallen and we face rising patient demand. We are also managing increasing complexity. Simple consultations about acne or blood pressure which used to offer us brief respite from all of the challenging puzzles seem a distant memory, since triage systems have assigned these easier cases to new multidisciplinary team members!

So what is the solution? We know the government needs to do more to deliver on it’s commitment to increase the number of GPs. We also need a reduction in unnecessary bureaucracy for existing GPs, both to prevent burnout and a mass exodus of our experienced workforce. However, can we rely on this?

Some might feel like they can only fight against the negative rhetoric for so long before feeling like a broken record and giving up. Reading some of the posts on GP forums can feel like an echo chamber for people tired of all the things wrong with our job. I’ll admit that I’m prone to focus on any criticism, rather than all of the positives that come from my work- it’s an easy pitfall for the many high achieving professionals that make up our workforce.

If we take a harder look, we will see there is still support out there. Where I live, our GPs are still largely respected pillars of the community. I think it’s these voices we need to hear more of within local media, whether it be a newspaper article, a feature on the local radio station or a newsletter, like the one released by our primary care network, which has been shared on social media. Patient participation groups are another huge resource we could use to educate local populations about the circumstances impacting their access to care and what will follow if primary care is allowed to fall.

In the West Midlands, apart from the weather, GP appointments seem to be the most popular topic of conversation!

In the West Midlands, apart from the weather, GP appointments seem to be the most popular topic of conversation! It’s rare if I go out for a coffee and don’t overhear someone discussing an appointment with their GP. Sometimes I’m tempted to interrupt and correct them when they echo a negative media sentiment, though I suspect the large majority of people simply don’t know what to believe from the volume of misinformation in our modern world. The RCGP, union representatives and celebrity doctors have national influence to help to spread the truth, though in these circumstances, we shouldn’t underestimate the power of the individual conversations we have with our patients, whom we’ve built respect and trust with over years. As patients ‘talk’, our word will spread to others if we all share the same message.

This week when I contacted one of my regular patients, a gentleman with cancer, he remarked how reassuring it was just to hear the sound of my voice. Small moments like this remind me of the power of the core relationships of trust and respect that we form at the heart of great general practice. Communities are at the core of our work and if informed about the potential crisis faced I am sure the majority will do everything they can to support us.

Featured image by Shane Rounce on Unsplash

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