For the second year running, RCGP chair Dr Clare Gerada tops Pulse's Top 50 list of the UK's most influential GPs. She speaks to deputy editor Nigel Praities about her whirlwind year leading the profession
For a woman who's had an ‘extraordinarily difficult' time of it lately, Dr Gerada sits surprisingly easily in her chair. But when she tries to summarise the last 12 months, there's a definite heaviness in her voice.
‘It has been an extraordinary year,' she says. ‘It has plumbed the depths and also reached the heights.
‘I have learned a phenomenal amount, but I would not want to repeat the year I've just had.'
But then the clouds lift, and the RCGP chair is talking about ‘moving forward' again – a testament to the seemingly limitless energy which has become her trademark.
We meet at her GP practice in Vauxhall, south London, amid a tangled new-build bankside development. She is ensconced in a back room on the phone to a journalist when I arrive, simultaneously tapping at a laptop in front of her.
As the figurehead of a fraught, impassioned but ultimately unsuccessful campaign to scrap the health bill, Dr Gerada has rarely been out of the media spotlight this year.
She makes no apologies for her combative, high-visibility approach, arguing it was crucial she explained how she believed the NHS reforms would affect patient care.
‘It was really important that the RCGP highlighted the issues around the Health and Social Care Bill, now the Act,' she says. ‘It is really important to stick up for general practice, and continuously tell the public how fantastic our profession is.'
But she admits she has learned to be more careful around the media, citing the letter she wrote to the Prime Minister in March in which she claimed the time had come ‘to restate our similarities rather than continuously focus on our differences'.
‘We were trying desperately at the eleventh hour to find a third way through, and that was splashed across the media as a U-turn,' she laments. ‘It certainly wasn't a U-turn. But yes, I am careful now. I know a lot more about what might be picked up.'
In February, Dr Gerada revealed she had often been told to ‘settle down' and stop ‘scaremongering' over the health bill, and she has also been accused by some of being too uncritical of GPs.
‘I have been told off for not criticising GPs enough, but I say that isn't my job,' she says. ‘Until we start looking at the causes of variability – not just in patients, but below that – I am not going to be criticising.
‘Of course there is unacceptable practice among some of my profession, as there is in every profession. But as chair of the RCGP, I need to understand variability and not criticise my own colleagues.'
After the pitched battles over the health act, Dr Gerada has found some common ground with the Department of Health over the current workforce crisis in general practice. After first reading ‘every single strategy and vision document I can get my hands on', she is busy formulating a 10-year master plan for the profession -.
‘The challenge for the GP of the future is quite significant – they will be looking after more complex patients,' she says.
‘So we are putting together an action plan that will start at medical school and persist right beyond, with more GPs spending longer with their patients and communities.'
At the heart of this is a call for 10,000 more GPs over the next 10 years, something the DH has taken on board by pledging a 20% increase in training places. Dr Gerada has also already won a sizable victory in persuading education bodies to back the extension of GP training to four years – the plan is now awaiting formal sign-off from Medical Education England and financial approval from the Treasury.
But she is not resting on her laurels, and for the remainder of her period as chair – her terms ends in November 2013 – she will be working to ‘increase our numbers, increase the time we can spend with patients and give the evidence to the public about how important general practice is, and how important it is to develop the workforce'.
‘What I really want to do is leave a legacy for general practice,' she says.
Best moment: Successfully making the case for extending GP training to four years.
Worst moment: Her letter to David Cameron that sparked accusations of an RCGP U-turn over the health bill.
Dr Clare Gerada: woman of action
Dr Gerada won Pulse's ‘headline-hogging' award last year for going beyond the call of duty in keeping GPs in the news, but there was one in particular that caught thousands of GPs' attention.
‘Gerada injured in bike accident' was one of the most viewed articles on PulseToday last year, with many subsequently following her recovery on Twitter.
The incident brought nationwide attention to the dangerous spot for cyclists at Blackfriars Bridge in London – which has since been redesigned.
Having made her recovery, Dr Gerada then went on to join BMA Council member Dr Clive Peedell for the final stage of his ‘Bevan's run' from Cardiff to London, to demonstrate against the Government's health reforms – although this time on foot, accompanied by her dog Lucy.