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Non-principal group cushioned my move to general practice

Dr Rupal Shah explains how a group helped her cope with being a fully-fledged GP

ery soon after qualifying, it became apparent life as a fully-fledged GP was not nearly as cushioned as during my registrar year. It was suddenly more difficult to ask advice about clinical problems; this was especially true when I worked as a locum.

I often did not know the other doctors in the surgery, or was the only doctor in the practice for a particular session. It was reassuring others felt the same way.

Our non-principal group grew out of a study group for the MRCGP exam during my registrar year (formed with other registrars from my VTS). After the exam, most of us decided to stay and work locally.

Because we all felt relatively unsupported, we soon decided to keep meeting up. We agreed to reduce the frequency of these meetings from once a week to a more realistic monthly interval and take it in turns to meet at our homes. This seemed more relaxed and comfortable than meeting in a surgery.

Not just a social club

Apart from the social chit-chat, we try to divide the session into a hot-topics discussion and a clinical session. In the time for hot topics, we might discuss anything from problem patients to problem employers! Since we are still all either locuming or salaried, it is useful to discuss employment issues such as fair rates of pay and benefits such as maternity and sick leave you might expect to be in a potential contract.

It is helpful when negotiating terms of employment to know what colleagues at a similar stage have been offered. We can let each other know about useful courses and, importantly, how to get funding. It's good to have moral support when trying to get to grips with the more mundane aspects of general practice such as planning PDPs, appraisals and revalidation. We all try to bring along an interesting article from a journal to discuss and talk over the best way to tackle difficult clinical situations we have come across.

In many ways, these meetings are a substitute for the tutorials we had as registrars: they provide another layer of support in what can be a relatively isolated working environment. Since we only meet once a month for a few hours, being in the group is not too intrusive on family life, but conversely, we all know we can always telephone one another for advice.

Collecting PGEA points

We didn't formally set out to be in a 'learning set', but we soon found out our relatively informal meetings could be used to collect PGEA points or as part of our PDPs. We simply had to keep minutes from all our meetings and record what we had learned from each session. There was even funding (albeit not a huge amount) available from the deanery to help keep the group going. The Government these days is especially keen we 'reactionary' GPs keep up to date. Certainly, if you are a newly qualified GP within two years of completing the VTS, you may be eligible for payment as part of the 'higher professional education' scheme ­ just contact the postgraduate education tutor at your deanery.

If you are new to an area and don't know enough people who want to form a learning set, you may find there are already several up and running locally. They may not be specifically aimed at new GPs and are not necessarily for non-principals only ­ there may well be a mix of GPs at different stages in their careers. Again, the postgraduate tutor at the deanery or PCO should have details. The National Association of Non-Principals website has a list of non-principal groups throughout the country. Usually, new faces are very welcome and more formal meetings are less likely to be cancelled and may be more time-efficient. Apart from the educational element, joining a group is a way to meet colleagues working in the same locality.

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