The former RCGP chair Professor Dame Clare Gerada makes a great observation in our cover feature. Since the Covid vaccination rollout began she has noticed a positive change in media coverage of GPs.
As our investigation reveals, this is much needed – and long overdue. Last year was arguably the most challenging ever for general practice. While rapidly reconfiguring services, GPs worked tirelessly at the front line in hot hubs and in their own surgeries, risking – and tragically in 16 cases losing – their lives.
The much-criticised clap might not have helped GPs in terms of the extra protection or funding they needed, but they might have expected the sentiment to be reflected in the media. Yet instead of thanks, they faced accusations of being ‘closed’ and ‘avoiding’ patients. There was negativity towards the profession in almost half the articles on GP access last year, and one in five put the blame squarely on GPs.
Yet anti-GP sentiment in the media isn’t new. GPs have often borne the brunt of criticism, and it is not clear exactly why. GPs posit some theories: they operate in a unique space as small businesses that work almost solely within the NHS, and as such are particularly susceptible to accusations of ‘greed’; they are closer to patients, and are thus victims of their own success; and they can be outspoken, which makes them a bigger target.
All the above are true, but I believe the main reason is they are in the public sector – which tends to be a target for one-eyed coverage in the right-wing media (for comparison, look at the only two stories this section of the press ever runs about social workers: ‘Evil social workers remove child from family’ and ‘Evil social workers leave children with abusive family’.)
There is also the issue that pervades much of the reactionary press at the moment, that life used to be better way back when. In the case of GPs they pine for the Dr Finlay era, ignoring that 1950s-style care is impossible nowadays and the toll providing it used to take on GPs themselves.
We also can’t ignore the role of health authorities in stoking anti-GP sentiment.
It was former health secretary Jeremy Hunt’s claims around GPs no longer doing out of hours that led to this becoming received wisdom, while former CQC chair Professor Steve Field’s references to ‘maggots’ in GP surgeries, and his ‘intelligent monitoring’ (seemingly mining old Reddit threads for evidence) led to hundreds of practices being unfairly derided. And NHS England’s misguided press release on face-to-face access was the source of many of the anti-GP headlines seen last year.
In each case, they knew much of the media would be a willing conduit for their message.
As Professor Gerada points out, now that GPs are needed to save the nation from the pandemic, the tide seems to be turning a little. But they deserve a fair press all the time.
Public trust in GPs remains among the highest of all professions. I’m regularly told about patients saying ‘GPs are all lazy and greedy, but you’re great, doc’ – or words to that effect.
GPs don’t expect to be hailed as heroes on the front pages every day. But a little respect for doing their normal jobs wouldn’t go amiss.
Jaimie Kaffash is editor of Pulse. Follow him on Twitter @jkaffash or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.