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At the heart of general practice since 1960

How to work together on management

Dr Steve Illiffe answers the Pulse careers questionnaire

What made you decide to go into general practice?

It seemed the only sensible thing to do at the time, if I wanted to retain any connection with my background. The alternative was to be isolated from that reality in a narrow culture where so many seemed to be strangers in their own land. I went to medical school with the intention of becoming a GP, but was beguiled along the way by psychiatry, rheumatology and gynaecology, which seem an odd set of temptations now. Rheumatology turned out to be too narrow, feminist friends soon persuaded me out of the gynaecology option, but the interest in psychiatry stuck.

What would you have done if you had not been a doctor?

The default plan if A-level grades failed to match medical school entry requirements were 1) Art college 2) Russian studies 3) Archaeology, in that order of preference. I regretted not being able to study art at school, but am making up for it now. I was obsessed enough with Russian history and culture to contemplate learning the language. Archaeology was a hobby I continued until summer vacations ran out, peaking in the dusty plains of eastern Turkey.

Who's your career role model/guru?

There are horses for courses here. In my novice days Julian Tudor Hart's incisive thinking was exhilarating. Latterly I took to Salvador Allende, GP and President of Chile, who borrowed the Medici family motto 'Make Haste Slowly', surely the best advice you can give to someone working in family medicine. The late Tom Kitwood remains a hard act to beat in thinking dialectically about health and illness.

What's your career high point so far?

Without doubt a move into purpose-built premises that made a dynamic, innovative group even more so, allowing us to expand our ideas, services, teaching and learning in ways we had not imagined possible. The next highest was the death of fundholding.

And the low point?

The birth of fundholding, which revealed the gullibility and venality beneath the urbane surface of medicine. I thought about emigrating.

Anything interesting on your surgery wall?

In the public areas of the medical centre we have paintings by local artists, including a unmissable portrait of Eric Cantona. In the staff and teaching areas the walls carry our publications and scientific posters, plus some revealing pictures from the last Christmas party. In my office I have wooden objects and metalwork brought from South America, the Pacific and Africa by patients, two original posters from the Popular Unity period in Chile, a German health promotion image of a crutch made of cigarettes, and two pictures from towns I love to visit, Ulm and Arrezo. Also some Health Matters postcards of quotes from Aneurin Bevan.

What leisure interests would you list in your Who's Who entry?

Mastering German, which Mark Twain rightly called a dead language because only the dead have time to learn it. Also, growing teenagers, herding tortoises and meandering. The first two activities are similar, because both species are determined explorers, dislike barriers and are out of sight the moment you turn your back. Meandering includes chauffeuring adolescents to strange places at strange hours, but also regularly treading well-beaten paths to ageing family members. This meandering allows the backlog of books unread in the middle career period to be consumed, along with much music, on long train journeys and quiet periods in still homes, and is a source of great happiness.

What's your fantasy career move?

All my career moves, successful or not, have had enough elements of fantasy in them to make staying still attractive. On the other hand I might yet get to art school, or go back to unearthing clues in Anatolia, even though my shovelling is not what it used to be.

Dr Steve Illiffe is reader in general practice at University College London

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