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‘General practice made Richie ill’

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’.