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Brief encounters - Helen Lester



Dr Helen Lester is a GP in inner city Birmingham. Much of her clinical career has been spent providing primary health care for hard to reach groups including homeless people and, more recently, asylum seekers and refugees. She is also professor of primary care at the National Primary Care Research and Development Centre in Manchester. Her research work has focused on ways of improving primary care mental health. Since 2005, she has also co-chaired the academic panel advising negotiators on the QOF.

What made you want to be a doctor?

A desire to give back that comes from watching my Dad spend years involved with community voluntary service groups, unpaid, unsung, making a thousand tiny differences.

What would most improve medicine in the UK?

An abolition of the politics of mistrust.

What would most improve your working life?

A personal lane on the M6.

Who has had the biggest influence on you?

In clinical practice, Dr Ian Fletcher, who taught me, by example, that it's OK to be yourself with patients and that hugging a patient is perfectly acceptable and sometimes absolutely necessary.

Which historical figure in medicine do you most admire?

Semmelweis: a hero for women everywhere, for rebels with causes and lovers of irony (he died, according to some sources, of a wound infection).

What do you think will be the biggest change in gen. practice over the next 10 years?

The slow creep of private providers and the expanding cadre of entrepreneurial GPs within the NHS mean that face-to-face patient care will be increasingly delivered by salaried GPs.

This may not be good for the profession as a whole, will lead to a sense of insecurity and possible exploitation at an individual level and there will be inevitable consequences for patient continuity and wider community engagement.

We ignore this sub plot at our peril… in ten years time there will be a generation of GPs with no collective memory of traditional family practice.

Are any members of your family doctors?

No. I was the first person in my family to go to University. I married a fellow medical student - does that count?

If you weren't a doctor what would you be?

A journalist.

What advice would you give to someone considering a career as a doctor?

That any relatively clever young person could train to be a doctor, but the ones who make a difference see it as a privilege, instinctively treat everyone equally, are endlessly curious, tolerate uncertainty well, and are well grounded.

How interested are you in money?

Not in the slightest – but that's easy to say if you're rarely in the red.

Is medicine a vocation?


What makes you happy?

Not being able to get a word in edgeways at teatime.

What makes you angry?

The attitude and actions of this country, Government and people, towards asylum seekers, many of whom are fleeing from political situations and administrations that we have helped to create or continue to support.

Which newspapers do you read?

The Guardian, The Observer, Private Eye, and The Big Issue.

If you had £200 to treat yourself, how would you spend it?

On books and shoes in equal measure.

Have you ever suffered sexist attitudes from colleagues?

Yes – though rarely in academia. I once had a job interview for a partnership stopped half way through with the words 'thanks for turning up…we just wanted to see what the one woman in 100 people who applied for this job was like…'

How do you balance work and family life?

Sometimes I don't - and we end up with fish and chips for tea.

Which book would you recommend as a must read for every GP?

Poetry is often more powerful than prose so I would suggest reading Elaine Feinstein on bereavement, particularly ‘Winter ‘and ‘Home'; Simon Armitage's ‘A painted bird for Thomas Szasz' on human frailty and pavement cracks and almost anything by Adrian Mitchell to remind us to mind.

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