Dr Lucia Gannon
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Dr Lucia Gannon argues that the structural integrity of general practice has been irreparably compromised by deliberately destructive Government policies
Earlier this year, Dr Sarah Fitzgibbon, a Cork GP, posted a tweet asking her followers if there was any appetite for an organisation specifically for women doctors in Ireland. The response was a resounding ‘yes’. In no time at all, Sarah had founded the organisation, named it ‘Women in Medicine in Ireland Network’ (WIMIN) and organised the inaugural WIMIN conference. This took place in The Marker Hotel, Dublin, in September and attracted over 100 women doctors and medical students.
For me, the conference was a very positive experience. A chance to explore the challenges of being a female doctor, to applaud women’s resilience and creativity, in managing family and career and to encourage younger doctors to forge their own paths in what can be a very rewarding and satisfying career.
If I had one regret, it was that the medical student who asked the panel the last question of the day, “what advice would you give to female medical students as we start out on our career?” had not asked this much earlier. I have no doubt it would have brought forth a wealth of wisdom from the participants.
Dr Emily O’Conor, an emergency department consultant and President of the Irish Association for Emergency Medicine, a woman well-qualified to give advice, responded to the question. Along with other words of wisdom, she stressed the fact that medicine involves hard work and being a woman is not an excuse for putting in less effort. Medicine involves hard work, whether you are male or female, but it is worth it. So many women, both now and in the past, have not had the opportunity to experience such job satisfaction.
As I drove the two-hour journey home, I resisted the urge to turn on the car radio and reflected instead on the advice I would be likely to give a young female, or indeed male, on the brink of their career. I came up with the following list.
Have a grand plan but do not hold it too tightly. Expect that your needs will change, and so will your goals. The only time to be absolutely certain about what you want is when you are in front of an interview board, trying to convince them you are the best person for the job.
Savour the progress you make towards your goals. Sometimes, the achievement of the goal is not as rewarding as the experiences you had along the way.
If you think of your career as climbing a ladder, it will always feel like an uphill struggle. Think of it as a pond, dotted with lily pads. There are lots of possible routes to the other side. If you need to rest a while to take stock, choose somewhere you feel safe and secure. If you have trouble getting to the next one, look for an outstretched hand and be prepared to clasp it.
If you want a clean house, and like me, do not consider cleaning a therapeutic activity, hire a cleaner. It will still be cheaper than therapy. It’s the little things that cause the greatest stress.
Stay interested in your career, even when not in paid employment. Attend conferences, local CME meetings, complete online learning modules and keep in touch with your working colleagues.
Do not let breast-feeding stop you from attending events. Most small babies take up less space than your over-sized handbag and can be fed discreetly, in any setting. If you have older children, ask for crèche facilities. You may not get them, but at least you will have started a conversation.
Surround yourself with men and women who support and encourage you. Men may not understand your challenges, but neither do they see your self-imposed limitations. It has often been men who have encouraged me to step outside my comfort zone and told me I could and should do something that I would not have considered trying, due to lack of confidence.
If you have a partner, try to respect their view on gender roles, while at the same time being honest about your own. Subconscious beliefs, ingrained from childhood, need to be exposed and explored before they can be reconciled.
Ask for what you need, both at home and at work. It is impossible for others to know what you want unless you tell them. You may not get it, but there is no harm in asking.
Remember that the greatest obstacle to achieving what we want is often ourselves. Challenge your belief in your own abilities and recognise when it is these beliefs, rather than external circumstances, that are holding you back.
I look forward to being part of the WIMIN journey and I am grateful to Sarah for setting up the organisation. For more information, or to join, go to www.wimin.ie.
Many years ago, when I was a medical student, I went to stay in a friend’s house for a weekend. Her brother, ‘Seamus’ (the names and exact circumstances have been altered), had just qualified as a doctor and was working as an intern. On Saturday morning, when Seamus arrived home, having been on-call on Friday night, his mother asked him if he would mind visiting Paddy, a neighbour and lifelong friend of the family, who had been unwell all week.
I stole a furtive glance at Seamus, to gauge his reaction to this request but was careful not to catch his mother’s eye, in case she decided that it would be a good idea for his sister, also a medical student, and I, to weigh-in on the medical consultation.
‘Was that how it worked?’, I wondered. ‘Was that what was involved in being a doctor? Being asked to examine friends, neighbours and family members any time they were ill?’
Seamus agreed to see Paddy but I could sense his unease and confusion which, at the time, I put down to lack of confidence in his new doctor role. He was, after all, only just qualified. Later in the afternoon, he reluctantly took his stethoscope from his bag (as yet, I didn’t own one but made a mental note that once I did, I would carry it with me always for times like this), he suggested that his sister and I come along. I am not sure if he thought we might learn something, or if he simply wanted moral support. Seamus seemed awkward as he entered the house and said hello to Paddy. Not at all as you would expect him to behave towards a life-long friend of the family.
“Ah, Dr O’Conghaile,” Paddy called out, extending his hand in greeting. “I’m delighted you came to see me. And how are you getting on in your new job?”
Seamus engaged in hesitant chit-chat but remained standing, looking more and more ill-at-ease. Eventually, he asked Paddy about his illness, a series of closed questions. Afterwards, the young doctor produced his stethoscope and performed a first-class honours respiratory and cardiovascular examination, after which he slowly and thoughtfully removed his stethoscope from his ears and bundled it up and put it in his pocket.
“So, what’s the verdict?” Paddy asked, sitting back on his chair, completely at ease.
Seamus diagnosed a chest infection and recommended antibiotics. As he did not have a prescription pad, he said he would go to the chemist and see if they would give him some. Paddy thanked him and proceeded to engage us all in conversation but Seamus was suddenly keen to get away and muttered something about needing to get to the chemist before it closed, even though it was only 3.30 in the afternoon. At the time, I thought Seamus was unhappy with the outcome, or worried about missing something. It wasn’t until after I qualified and found myself in similar situations that I began to understand something of his discomfort.
There are certain situations where doctors need to be allowed not to be doctors. There are certain situations where being asked for medical advice feels like an abuse, a violation, a breach of trust. Simply having a medical degree and a stethoscope does not mean that we are always ‘open for business’. Just as a doctor must adhere to a professional code of conduct, there ought to be a code of ethics for those seeking medical advice. A newly-qualified accountant would not be expected to check a neighbour’s accounts. A teacher would not be asked to help out with a child’s homework. Yet doctors are forever being asked to give an opinion, have a look and suggest a treatment, as if it is something that can be done with the slightest of effort and doesn’t cost a thought.
I am now pretty experienced at not engaging in these interactions. A short quip about not working for free, or a simple, ‘I don’t know anything about that’ usually puts an end to any further discussion on the matter. But I am always wary of those who slip easily into patient mode and see me as a doctor rather than just myself and I usually give these individuals a wide berth. But despite this, whenever I am faced with an unexpected medical request, I can’t help but feel a sense of betrayal, an invasion of boundaries, and find myself feeling defensive with a strong urge to get away, just as Seamus did that Saturday afternoon so many years ago.
Edward de Bono’s thinking methods have helped sort out many a circular discussion in our house. So when the question of whether or not we should resign from the GMS arose recently, due to the now familiar problem of not being able to find holiday locum cover for the practice, the logical thing to do was to examine this course of action using de Bono’s ‘Six Thinking Hats’.
The Six Thinking Hats tool is a simple, effective, parallel thinking process that separates thinking into six clear functions and roles. Each function is represented by a symbolic coloured hat, as outlined below. The abridged discussion went something like this:
White Hat: This hat calls for information, known or needed. The most important consideration is whether or not it would be possible to make a reasonable income without a GMS contract. Information needed includes other potential sources of income for an experienced GP in their mid-50s, current practice income and expenditure.
Yellow Hat: This hat symbolises optimism and calls for exploration of the positives and benefits of a particular course of action. One positive outcome of resignation would be that time off could be planned and taken as desired. Finding alternative work would not be a problem, as there is always a demand for locum or sessional work. Not running a practice would result in reduced overheads, administrative work and staff management.
Black Hat: This hat calls for exploration of all the negative aspects of a course of action. Patients may have to travel further for medical care, as it is unlikely a full-time doctor will be appointed in Killenaule. There will be more ambulance call-outs, increased and longer hospital admissions, more medication errors. The local pharmacy will reduce its staff or close. There will be job losses from our surgery. It would be difficult to explain our decision to our patients, as they are also our neighbours and friends and they have come to trust us. It could take a long time to regain that trust as a non-GP member of the community. There would be loss of the security of the GMS contract, a risk of reduced income and a risk of loss of self-esteem that comes from the perception of self as a ‘failed business-owner’.
Red Hat: This signifies feelings, hunches and intuition. We would feel sad that 22 years of financial and emotional investment ended in failure. Sad to finally admit that long-term personal care, by the same doctor, which has been shown to significantly reduce mortality rates, is no longer available to the people of Killenaule. Worried that we have let people down by not managing to make this practice sustainable. Fearful about such a change at this stage of our lives and uncertainty about the future. Relief that we are no longer solely responsible for the running of a GP practice in difficult circumstances with no reason to believe that these circumstances will improve. Happy to be able to plan time off and know it will not have to be cancelled or delayed at the last minute. A sense of freedom at releasing ourselves from an archaic and punitive contract of employment that can be altered at any time at the pleasure of the Minister.
Green Hat: This hat focuses on creativity and growth and calls for exploration of new ideas and possibilities. Perhaps the resignation of two committed and outwardly successful doctors will help highlight the plight of Irish general practice, leading to some attempt by Government to improve it. This is probably magical thinking, but this is allowed when wearing the Green Hat.
Blue Hat: This is the ‘managing hat’ that ensures the thinking tool is used correctly and brings the discussion to a close. There are many factors to consider in trying to come to a decision, not least examination of outstanding White Hat information. We decided to re-examine our options once we had accumulated this information.
Carrying out this exercise uncovered two important factors, the first being that we are not responsible for the current state of general practice. Failure to reverse FEMPI is one of the main reasons that there is a shortage of GPs in Ireland and until this is reversed, nothing will improve. The second is that the only reason we are still in business is that we are resilient individuals who work hard to overcome both personal and professional challenges. But resilience, while it allows us to survive and thrive, does not tackle the underlying problem of abuse of GPs by Government. Resilience has not resulted in attracting young doctors into our practice. Resilience, coupled with magical thinking, may be the reason that many of us ‘keep on keeping on’ long after we should have quit.
In 2017, the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners ran a public awareness campaign to promote general practice. I have to admit, it almost had me, with its soft-focus cinematography, attractive, confident, caring GPs, perfectly balanced for gender, age and colour. And the evocative language: “I interpret the great unknown, but I’m not an astronomer. I understand dark clouds, but I’m not a meteorologist.” I was almost convinced, until the final statements: “I am a GP. But I’m not just a GP. I’m your ‘specialist in life’.” A slogan that clearly undermined the very profession the campaign was trying to promote. “Not just a GP… your ‘specialist in life’.”
It sounded like something that would have prompted Fr Trendy to pose his signature question: “Can I get in there, Mike?” on the Live Mike Show many years ago. Possibly followed-up by: “We have to ask ourselves the basic questions. What IS a GP? What IS a specialist? And what IS life?” In Ireland, it is not the public that need to be convinced of the value of general practice, but the politicians and Department of Health. Answering Fr Trendy’s hypothetical questions might be as good a place as any to start.
A GP is a general practitioner, not a specialist practitioner. As a GP, I can help you if you think you are ill; if you are wondering if that chest pain you had last week is angina or costochondritis. If you think your sore throat might need an antibiotic. If you need extra blood pressure tablets or your bloods checked. If you are wondering if you are just a bit sad or clinically depressed. If your baby’s six-week check is normal and if it is a good idea to get that same baby vaccinated. As a GP, I can fit your Mirena, do your smear test, inject your carpal tunnel, stitch your head and syringe your ears. I can meet a whole host of diverse needs, but I am not a specialist. I did not train to be a specialist in anything. I trained to be a GP. Specialists are found in hospitals or some newer version of secondary care and they are better able to explain their own role.
And what is life? A little word for a big concept. Advice on ‘life’ is probably best taken from the lifestyle section of the weekend newspapers, because I am not an expert in the latest fashions, the best anti-wrinkle creams or this year’s favourite holiday destinations. I don’t know any more than the average Sunday newspaper reader about adventure sports, meeting your soulmate or making plans for retirement. I cannot ‘interpret the great unknown’ and do not necessarily understand your ‘dark clouds’. I have a hard enough job managing my own little life. I have no desire or expertise that qualifies me to advise you on how to manage yours.
A few weeks ago, a friend who works in HSE finance asked, “but what is it you actually do all day? Sitting at a desk, in front of a computer, what can you actually do for people’s health?”
“If you need to ask, you probably don’t need to know,” I replied. Blessed with robust good health and already well into his 50s, he was one of the lucky ones who had never attended a GP. But his question was genuine. Also, he might need a GP some day and it would help if he had some idea of what we were about. I tried to convey the constant navigating between health, illness and disease. The management of the ill who deny their illness and the well who are convinced they are ill. The effort it took to be there, at that desk, in front of that computer, with no idea what would come through the door. No idea what knowledge, skills or attitudes were going to be called out before leaving for home that evening. I added that as well as practising medicine, most GPs that I knew were also business owners, employers, teachers, lecturers, researchers, health advocates, college representatives and even some writers. Others work with emergency services, advise the Government, attend the dying, the homeless, deliver care to refugees. “Right, I get the picture,” he interrupted me. “I’ll stick to balance sheets, regular hours and a predictable paycheck.”
General practice is in crisis. At the heart of this is the fact that those, like my friend, who do not use the service do not know what it is worth. GPs and their patients are the only ones who can explain its value. But the lily does not need to be gilded. We should never need to pretend to be anything other than just GPs.
Healthcare should not be used for political gain, as in the case of the Government’s response to the recent cervical screening programme controversy. The actual problems at the core of the controversy were straightforward. A number of tests, initially reported as negative, were subsequently found to have evidence of disease and the women involved were not informed of this. So, how is this rectified by offering women a repeat smear test if they, or their GP, are concerned? The CervicalCheck website indicates that GPs have been given the information necessary to make an informed decision. But the information does not answer three important questions frequently asked by women. Why is it not possible to review my previous test result rather than subject me to another test? How confident can I be that my previous test result is accurate? Where will my test be processed? In the absence of this information, the only reasonable option is to offer a further test and hope that this is also reported as normal.
The CervicalCheck website also states that a smear test is a “simple procedure that only takes a few minutes”. In the UK, a cervical screening campaign suggested that women put having a cervical smear test on their to-do list, alongside booking a hair appointment or buying cinema tickets. But consulting your doctor about a smear test is not the same as asking your hairdresser for advice on whether to have a half or a full head of highlights. I suspect many men have no idea of the complex decisions women have to make in the hairdressers, just as I suspect they do not give much thought to the anxieties, fears, embarrassment and discomfort that women experience when it comes to having a smear test. I would choose to have 20 blood tests over this most intimate and invasive procedure, as would the many women who turn up at my surgery, having taken time off work and/or arranged childcare. Women only attend for smear tests because medical professionals and public campaigns convince them that this is the best way to protect their health.
Dr Robert O’Connor, Head of Research at the Irish Cancer Society, stated recently that the advantages of cervical screening far outweigh the risks (Medical Independent, 17 May). According to the article, in the decade since cervical screening was introduced in Ireland, more than 1,300 cancers and 87,000 high- and low-grade abnormalities have been diagnosed. This means that for the 130 women diagnosed with cancer each year, 8,700 women will have either repeat tests, colposcopy, biopsy, laser or large loop excision of the transformation zone (Lletz procedure). Cervical cancer is rare. Abnormal smears are common. But no-one knows which ones will turn out to be significant, so all women are followed-up and treated. Of those who require biopsies, many will experience bleeding, infection or premature delivery. Many women experience considerable anxiety while waiting for their test result, a well-recognised harm of screening, and many others delay presenting to their doctor with significant symptoms because they have had a normal test. This “simple procedure that only takes a few minutes” has an impressive array of potential unintended consequences.
The article also states that cervical screening saves lives, and GPs are urged to protect the programme. The evidence for this is that prior to the introduction of the cervical screening programme, cervical cancer rates in Ireland were increasing. Since its introduction, the rates have been falling. But correlation does not necessarily equal causation and diagnosing cancer does not always translate into saving lives. Even though the decline in cervical cancer rates coincided with the introduction of the programme, it could still be due to a myriad of other factors, such as: Improved overall health; changes in sexual behaviours; reduced child-bearing; or reduction in sexually-transmitted diseases. Dr Margaret McCartney, in her book The Patient Paradox: Why Sexed-up Medicine is Bad for Your Health, explains that the decline in cervical cancer mortality rates in the UK pre-dated the introduction of the cervical screening programme. In reality, the only way to know if cervical screening saves lives is to perform a randomised, controlled trial that compares a group of women who have had screening with a similar group who have not. This has never been done. At one time in the early 1970s in the UK, such a trial was suggested but deemed unethical. Yet the ethics of subjecting millions of women to an invasive test without clear evidence of the benefits and potential harmful effects is ignored.
It is disappointing that the political answer to this controversy has been to ask GPs to paper over the cracks, rather than addressing the real issues of test limitations and poor communication with patients.
Murphy, a man in his 50s, hesitated at the door of the consulting room. “I wanted to ask you, doctor, would there be any chance that you would take on my mother? Her doctor has retired and I really would like her to attend this practice.” Mr Murphy was not the first person to request that I take on the care of a relative in recent months. I was well aware of his mother’s situation and while she had my sympathy, in the interest of professionalism, safe practise and self-preservation, the answer had to be “no”. ‘I’m sorry,” I said, “we have no spare capacity right now. I can put her on a list and contact her if we manage to get another doctor. That’s the best I can offer for now.”
Mr Murphy, a rural-dweller all his life, did not need to be told that communities such as his are being eviscerated by Government policies and that the demise of the rural GP is just part of this process.
His mother was a patient in a practice close to me where the GP had recently retired. The list had been advertised for over three years with no applicants. A solution was found whereby a city practice, 40 minutes from the village, agreed to register these patients and provide them with a GP for four sessions a week, in exchange for a rural practice allowance. It is understandable that these patients wish to move to a neighbouring practice with a choice of three doctors, a nurse and a secretary. But providing these services costs and, as currently, there can only be one rural practice allowance per rural area, there would be no extra resources provided to another rural practice to take them on. Hence, the solution to support a city practice and reduce the service commitment.
In order to come to terms with this development and realising that living and working in rural Ireland for over 30 years could result in biases, I applied one of Edward De Bono’s thinking tools to the situation. The one I chose is called ‘Other People’s Views’. This involves assessing a situation from the point of view of all the stakeholders.
Actually getting into their shoes and trying to understand their reasoning.
The stakeholders in this scenario include the patients, the doctors who decided not to apply for the post, the doctors who agreed to take on the list, the HSE/DoH, the neighbouring doctors and our negotiating bodies, the IMO and NAGP.
1. The patients at least have a doctor, but it is a much-reduced service. They no longer have a doctor living or present in the area, outside of the four sessions provided. They must travel a considerable distance to see a doctor at any other time. They will probably never have a local doctor, nurse or secretary again. They are unlikely to be able to get a doctor in the case of an emergency and are a long way from a hospital.
2. Some recent graduates did consider the possibility of taking on this list but changed their minds when they calculated the cost of premises, equipment, staff, medical insurance and Caredoc fees. Even with a rural practice allowance, it did not make any financial sense. They went on to find work in urban areas.
3. The doctors who agreed to take over the list have additional patients and increased workload. As compensation, they get a rural practice allowance and all the benefits this accrues. They are providing a service that no-one else can provide, offering a helping hand to a community that would otherwise have no doctor, in an arrangement that makes perfect business sense for them.
4. For the HSE/DoH, this solution is the best possible outcome in the circumstances. The post is no longer vacant. Patients have access to a doctor at all times. The responsibility for care rests with the new GP.
5. As a neighbouring GP, this development is the worst possible outcome. I see the helping hand as a greedy paw. It creates inequality of care between neighbours and friends. It puts pressure on surrounding practices to take these patients on with no additional resources. As a rural-dweller and experienced rural GP, I consider this level of care unsafe, uncaring, and unresponsive to patients’ needs. I also consider it ineffective, as it will almost certainly result in increased out-of-hours consultations and emergency department admissions. To me, it demonstrates poor judgment and leadership by both GPs and the HSE and should not be facilitated or tolerated.
6. Finally, if GPs on the ground consider this level of care adequate and collaborate with the HSE to dumb-down rural practice, what hope have our negotiating bodies of attracting resources to re-feed this starving specialty?