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'General practice made Richie ill'

Dr Lucy Henshall’s speech to LMCs Conference 2019

Dr Lucy Henshall’s speech to the LMCs Conference in Belfast dominated the first day. Here is the full transcript

Good afternoon conference.

It’s wonderful to be here in Belfast today, my birthplace and origin, though I live in Suffolk now. I trained alongside Scottish and Welsh doctors too, and so I speak today for us all.

I’m going to tell you about Richard Bennett. Rich was in the year above me at Med School. Kind, funny, very bright too.

An English Literature degree already bagged, he loved poetry. A keen competitive runner, and a frustrated rock guitarist.

Everyone adored Rich.

His first GP partnership was a damaging experience, so he moved into Public Health, then came back to his real passion, caring for patients in general practice, - becoming my husband’s full-time Partner in Felixstowe.

Our kids played together by the sea, Rich and Annabel were our friends, not just colleagues, in a small practice in a small seaside town in Suffolk.

Richie just loved singing along to Disney films with his two gorgeous little girls, Holly and Rosie.

As a GP Trainer, he inspired a generation.

Astute clinician, compassionate, skilled, and a joy to work with.

Later, he worked for a charity assessing the psychological and physical injuries of victims of torture, seeking asylum in Britain.

Richie was the kind of doctor we all want to see when we are sick, or scared, or dying.

On 30 December 2013, Richie drove 20 miles, and then jumped under a train.

I wish this was a one-off tragedy.

But the ONS statistics, 2011-2015, reveal that 430 health professionals died by suicide.

Eighty one were doctors.

If these were WW1 soldiers, there would be a Commonwealth War Graves cemetery with rows of white headstones, each one acknowledging the self-sacrifice of a named individual.

I see no visible memorial to the NHS fallen. No thanks for what they each gave.

The systemic failure of the NHS and wider society, to properly look after the GPs who dedicate their lives to caring, seems to me, as barbaric as sending those young men ‘over the top’ in trench warfare.

Unprotected, unsupported, and undervalued as human beings.

Almost expendable.

Across all four nations GPs work flat out, doing the very best they can, in appalling conditions, and under relentless hostile fire - from all sides.

To Richie….

General practice made Richie ill, he needed two lengthy spells off work due to depression.

A complaint landing just as he returned from a family holiday, had changed him irreversibly.

Rendered him fearful. Dealing with it broke him. Thereafter, he worried about even small things at work.

Returning from subsequent holidays, he anxiously checked surgery post, and emails days before returning to work. In fear.

Richie took ill-health retirement before he was 50, to try and rescue his mental health.

But the damage was already done.

We know that 1 in 3 GPs suffer from burnout, depression or both.

We know that female doctors have four times the suicide risk of the general population.

And we know that the average age of GPs accessing England’s GP Health Service is now just 38.

NHS general practice is breaking people; the system fails to support them in their work, and then fails to mend them if they fall ill.

Thirty eight per cent of NHS staff report being personally affected by bullying, harassment or discrimination.

Instead of being seen as intelligent adults, treated as the medical professionals that we are; we are scolded like naughty schoolchildren.

And yet we are still meant to ‘just cope’ - without complaining – for decades.

We demand that the multiple adverse forces impacting on GPs mental health, be named and tackled head on; before they lead to even more suicides.

We charge GPC to pursue this whole issue, in each of the four nations, with every stakeholder, at every single opportunity, and to keep on doing so, again and again, and again, until the tide is turned; and until what we need to be put in place is firmly embedded in all four nations.

And I personally want to hold the Secretary of State, Matt Hancock to the words of his own speech delivered last month when he referred to ‘building a just and caring culture, and valuing NHS staff’.

He said: ’We need to place as much importance on the care of the carers as the patients.’

And I agree with him, but we need actions, not just words.

As GPs, we deserve more than signposting to mindfulness.

Resilience alone did not protect those young men at the Somme.

Resilience alone cannot keep GPs safe and well either.

It is time to speak up for Richie, and Wendy Potts, and Sophie Spooner and all the others; and for those in the other nations, and those before, and since, and those to come.

It is time to tell their stories. To demand what we need.

We deserve to be cared for ourselves.

Supported and encouraged in our daily work, valued and cared for when we are well, and cared for especially if we become unwell.

Because, Conference, we too are ‘Also Human’.

Readers' comments (15)

  • Took Early Retirement

    Well said, but nothing will happen.

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  • If only. We are not humans, just useless, workshy GPs.

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  • Lucy, you are seen as earning 500000 for playing golf.
    So, if we are truly Independent Contractors WE [ the GPC, RCGP ] need to define safe working. No point blaming the NHS.
    Unless we define workloads, what we do and what we get paid for,[ currently take home pay of 3 pounds per consultation] we will always been seen as whingeing.
    Let us for clarity for both sides define what we do. This unremitting, undefined and limitless Contract leaves us wide open to complaint of not doing 'enough' even if we are working 14 hour days.
    My issue is this, the fault is in ourselves that we are underlings.
    But LMCs / BMA conferences without number have declined to define workloads. I know I have been there.

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  • All for one, spot on but the BMA don't represent us they are the party of preserving the NHS.We are expendable, we are on our own.Lions lead by donkeys.Soon the donkeys will out number the lions.Safe workloads need to be defined.I wish ,but some hope.

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  • Making urgent access to treatment services such as mental health and addiction for doctors in welcome, but for any other profession, occupational health services would be made available.

    Just another case of cobbler's children? Isn't it time we had a nationally available, trusted occupational health service that positively influences employers, addresses the harmful aspects of work and promotes good work for good health. That starts with funding training posts to address a 20% fall in Occupational Physicians since 2012

    Dr Richard Heron, former President, Faculty of Occupational Medicine

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  • To those who might seek to pass comment about my motivations, associations, affiliations or loyalties, i would say this.
    1. This motion was written about all GPs, and to highlight the needs of all GPs.
    2. I can imagine that I might potentially enjoy a salary of £500 000 for ‘playing golf’ and being a fat cat GP... but I have no idea what that might actually feel like, because that is not my world. I’ve actually made a net loss this past two years. Truth. Working as a doctor has had a net cost, rather than a net gain.
    3. Not everyone does what they do, for money.

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  • "One death is a tragedy, a million is a statistic".

    The sad truth is that a nation which allows its military veterans to suffer their PTSD incurred in wars of questionable "validity" on the streets without support, and has no capacity to deal with youngsters who are not quite suicidal enough by mental health services has no real regard for doctor suicides. The "Fat Cat" notion is part of it, as is the belief that we are "taught" to handle the brain-damage which the work imparts, and suicide simply implies that the deceased was just not up to it.

    But having said that I am oh so reassured that as I am part of the bedrock of the NHS, Tw~t Canhock(sic) has got my back......

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  • Eloquent and wise, as ever.

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  • So sorry Lucy I was not making fun of you at all. Quite the contrary, I agree with what you say entirely.
    But, the wider public view us in the way portrayed by DM and Mr Hunt [ remember his penance statement?] as fat cats. That view is widespread because we do not define what we do and how much we do it for.
    If we doctors cannot/ will not define safe working there is no chance the NHS will.
    I agree with you. What I would like is a definition of safety such that doctors like Richie never ever feel overwhelmed.
    Prof Stephenson said we need resilience like soldiers in Afghanistan.
    Surely, the practice of Medicine and General practice should not be war.
    So, who should define safe working such that this tragedy of Richie is not constantly repeated ?

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  • This story sadly echoes many others across many areas of working life - the impact of work stress on drs is however a neglected area, through a lack of appreciation, insight and empathy for those on the front line - Awarness already exists now in the profession through countless examples. what we need is to prioritise this as an occupational health issue bringing on par with the way those employees suffering from work stress are dealt with in the corporate sectors be that employment protection, health provision and risk management

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