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At the heart of general practice since 1960

GPs should savour role as pillars of community

Country doctors are usually well-known figures in their community, with all the advantages and disadvantages that implies. But in towns and cities some GPs prefer to live at some distance from the practice to preserve their anonymity.

I have never felt this need, and moved into the middle of my urban practice area in the dim and distant days when we did all our own night visits without the benefit of mobile phones. This meant that if the bleep went off when you were returning from a previous visit, you had to decide whether to return home or search for a non-vandalised phone box in the darkness. So what a relief to find a home just two minutes' walk from the surgery, which made out-of-hours duties almost a pleasure.

In addition I have had the benefit of 25 years without commuting or parking problems. Partners following me into the practice have also mostly come to live in the area, despite fears that a visit to Sainsbury's might result in an unexpected consultation.

But it is only since I retired a few months ago that I have realised another benefit of being an urban village doctor. Now I have more time, there is a chance to chat, and former patients are becoming friends as I discover details of their non-medical lives. The octogenarian whose bronchitis was often a problem told me all about his life as a head waiter in a top London hotel as we shared a bus journey, and proudly showed me a photo of his handsome 29-year-old self flambéing an elaborate dish for an admiring celebrity audience.

The unemployed driver with complicated family problems preserves his sanity by organising a local football club and has been on a visit to the home town of a twinned Italian team. And one former patient invited me to join her for a coffee in a high-street cafe, where we spent an enjoyable half-hour and I ended up joining her book club.

Retirement from general practice can leave a gap in your life, but continuing to live in the community where you worked can give a rewarding feeling of continuity.

From Dr Margaret Safranek, north London

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