Like many GP practices around the country, 18 months ago we found ourselves in the difficult position of having to reduce the service we offered because we no longer had the staff. We lost two of five partners through retirement, reducing our capacity by half. We tried to recruit new doctors through the usual channels but with no success. This was most likely down to our isolated location; working here can involve a lengthy commute. At the same time our premises were designated unfit for purpose and we had to move into the outpatients department of the local community hospital.
Yet the ongoing recruitment problem meant we also had to pull out of providing care to inpatients, which was a key part of keeping the community hospital running. As the only practice in town serving 8,500 patients, the community was incensed at the loss of services and they started an action group, which turned our fortunes on their head. Here are my tips for practices looking to solve similar problems.
1 Use videos and social media to spread the message
After patients realised the problems we were having, the Millom Health Action Group was formed and to do more to attract new GPs to the town. With the help of two volunteer residents they made a unique recruitment video, which used 12 children at the local primary school to tell the outside world all the fantastic reasons to live and work in the town.
GPs from the surgery took part in the video. It was posted on social media and received 5,000 hits in the first week. It encouraged people to apply and we now have three new GPs, are covering 34 of the 40 sessions we had previously and when our trainee qualifies next month we will be back to a full complement of staff.
The video just won the Local Community Initiative of the Year award at the UK Public Sector Communication Awards. With hindsight it was a great idea and perhaps we as GPs could have done even more to help sell the area. But at the time we were swimming hard to avoid drowning.
If I were going through the process again, I’d advise that you use all the help you can get – see if the local NHS trusts, who have more manpower and expertise in social media can help. Make sure you have the back up – our website really needs updating but it’s not a job at the top of the list – and we could have been more prepared for the attention it attracted.
2 Be candid
Through notices in the surgery and on our website and conversations with patients we explained the difficulties we were having. We have found that our community group has been very gracious – once you explain the problems to them, they understand the difficult position you are in. This has taken pressure off the practice as the group has deflected a lot of angst that could have been aimed at us.
The group has also worked really hard to encourage self-care, producing a poster and encouraging people to be mindful of their use of health services in the area.
3 Work in partnership
It soon became clear how important our local residents were in fighting for our services and they were invited to join the Millom Alliance – a new partnership between GPs, the community trust, the acute trust, social care, the ambulance trust and the community. As part of this, members of the community are helping us redesign local services to ensure more care is delivered in the town. We have 22,000 trips out of town for healthcare but we want to do more locally, so we have re-opened the nine-bed ward at the community hospital, and there are plans for an extension. We are also developing new telehealth facilities within the practice as part of a £995,000 award from NHS England to develop our surgery within the hospital site. These are all developments which make Millom an attractive and exciting place to work.
4 Set up a community newsletter
One of the issues identified by our community group is a problem of isolation for patients and the need to keep local residents in the loop about what is happening with local services. GPs write articles for the community newsletter – we’re doing a series of ‘a day in the life of…’ at the moment – but we can also include information that important for our patients. For example, upcoming articles include one on the minor ailments/pharmacy scheme and another on doctors’ dilemmas.
5 Link into patients’ other NHS campaigns
Millom residents attracted so much attention through a Facebook campaign following the threats to our services that a march was organised through the town to highlight the importance of local services. In all 2,500 people came out to protest against losing the community hospital and to show the NHS that they did care about what was happening. I don’t blame them – the hospital and our GP practice are the only NHS services they have in the town. It made it clear that residents didn’t just want to raise awareness, they wanted to be part of the solution.
Dr Charlotte Hattersley from Waterloo House Surgery in Millom, Cumbria