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Time for the old guard to join the social media fray?

Adam Staten

Adam Staten

Adam Staten trained at Cambridge University and Kings’s College London School of Medicine. After serving a short service commission in the Royal Army Medical Corps he returned to the NHS and is now a salaried GP. He lives in Surrey with his wife and children and likes to bang on about general practice, the future of medicine, and saving the NHS.
Adam Staten

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OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe news is everywhere. I don’t mean this in the way that I might if I were a dewy-eyed aspiring journalist, seeing fascination and potential scoops in everything around me. I mean that news coverage seems to be literally everywhere; on the TV, on the radio, on the computer, on the phone in my pocket, on a big screen in Waterloo train station. It’s inescapable. And when it comes to health news, or more particularly doctor news, it never seems to be good news.

Headlines such as: “1 in 4 cancer cases missed: GPs send away alarming number of patients” (Daily Mail, 1st March 2011), “These overpaid doctors must stop whingeing” (The Times, 28th May 2014) and “Study reveals scale of errors on doctors’ prescriptions” (The Guardian 2nd, May 2012), are depressingly commonplace.

Even when we try to recruit the help of mainstream media it seems to get turned against us. The BMA tried to make the point that ten minute appointments are potentially dangerous for patients so that general practice might get the support it needs to provide longer appointments.  To convey this message the ticker feed of the BBC news channel informed the viewer that “GPs are putting patients in danger with ten minute appointments” as though it is out of sheer contempt for our patients that we refuse to give them any more of our time.

It’s not just us. The junior doctors were subject to The Sun’s ‘Moet Medics’ smear campaign and, when the consultant contract negotiations re-opened recently, the BBC obligingly ran a story entitled “NHS consultant paid £375,000 in overtime” to point out that it isn’t only GPs who are workshy and overpaid.

I thought it was just me making my wife feel uncomfortable by screaming at the TV in the evenings, but a recent study in the BJGP exploring why younger GPs are leaving the NHS found that 63.4% of them are also pretty miffed at this continual public abasement.1 Thus far, shouting at the TV seems to have achieved relatively little but there is an alternative. The junior doctors used social media pretty effectively to counter a lot of the negative media coverage during the last round of strikes. The noise on social media outlets revealed widespread public support for the juniors, which helped to strengthen their resolve and legitimise their cause.

Unfortunately, I suspect that many GPs, dare I say many older GPs, are wary of being too vocal on social media, with a hint of concern that opening a Twitter account is akin to giving your patients a key to the back door and painting a target on your back for the GMC to aim at.
This is a shame because social media is our best tool for getting across our side of the argument and it is also a fantastic way of opening up a dialogue with the public. These arguments would be well explored by the reluctant older generation of GPs who have earned experience and gravitas by passing through the mill of the NHS over the last few decades and who can spot the same cycles of mistakes re-appearing over the horizon.

Having a good rant on a blog is incredibly cathartic, I can feel myself relaxing as I type, but it is also a way to reach thousands, potentially tens of thousands, of people in a matter of hours which is exactly what some successful GP bloggers do.

Social media is an effective means to counter the denigrations of our profession and, so dependent has the mainstream media become on social media that, if we make enough noise, we might even begin to influence them. And that might even mean the occasional positive headline.

Reference

1. Doran et al. Lost to the NHS: a mixed methods study of why GPs leave practice early in England. Br J Gen Pract Feb 2016, 66 (643) e128-e135

A letter to the Health Secretary

DSC02665Adam Staten is a GP trainee in Surrey and is on Twitter @adamstaten.

LETTER TO THE HEALTH SECRETARY

Dear Mr Hunt,

Many congratulations on being re-appointed as Secretary of State for Health in the Conservative cabinet. May I suggest we treat your re-appointment as a fresh start?

As a gynaecology SHO performing intimate examinations I was once told to ‘go in like a butterfly and come out like a lion.’ The idea was to cause minimum discomfort by combining a gentle approach with a swift withdrawal. This was not a strategy you adopted when you began your intimate examination of the NHS in 2012. It did in fact feel quite rough and quite prolonged. This time around perhaps you could be a little more gentle with your ideas and re-organisations and, when we finally get a period of stability, come out like a lion and stop meddling.

On many occasions you have talked of ending a culture of bullying within the health service and yet have yourself employed a beatings-will-continue-until-morale-improves attitude when dealing with its staff and this has endeared you to few. Attempting to bully the allied health professions of the NHS to fall into line with your ideas has not won you many friends.

For years NHS staff have hardly been able to turn on an NHS computer terminal without being greeted by your semi-psychotic stare and oddly geometric haircut as your picture has headed the endless bulletins and memoranda that spew forth from the Department of Health. Whilst producing a new edict may feel like a good days work to you, for those of us receiving it, it feels like an imposition, an interference and the promise of much more work for very little gain.

The smoke and mirrors re-organisations of the health care system that health ministers like yourself are fond of, the kind that generate a lot of activity, a rebranding or two and an apparent improvement in outcomes, actually distract from the business of treating patients.

Please remember too that the health care system is just that, a system for delivering health care. It is not a government tool to be used to address whatever national woes are troubling the electorate at any given moment. The NHS is not a branch of the benefits system nor is it an outpost of the immigration service.

Please dispense with ethically barren ideas such as denying benefits to people who refuse treatment for obesity. Doctors, nurses and other NHS staff should not feel obliged to coerce patients into treatments for purely financial reasons. Ideas such as this are eye catching and superficially gratifying to our vindictive sides but are unethical and unworkable in reality.

Neither can GPs solve the problems with immigration. Whilst it may seem an appealing idea to catch unsuspecting illegal immigrants whilst they are at their most vulnerable, the point when they seek medical help, most GPs would be reluctant to guilefully dupe immigrants into believing they were going to be given treatment for their illnesses before gleefully slinging them into detention. Please resist the compulsion to medicalise problems that are essentially social and political.

No-one would say that the NHS is a perfect system, but it is a good system. There is work to be done and changes to be made but trying to force all of them through between election cycles is devastating to the day-to-day functioning of health care.

You may like to think of the NHS as a wild stallion galloping powerfully through the plains of the UK. To tame it you can tie it up, beat it and try to break its will. This might work but, at the end of it, your stallion will be damaged both inside and out. Or you can whisper to it, coax it to your will with gentle reason and calm debate, and together we can ride off into the sunset.
I wish you well in your second stint at the helm of the NHS, and I hope you will wish us well in return.

Yours sincerely.