I’m halfway through my medical school career at the moment, having finished two years’ pre-clinical medicine and a one-year intercalated degree in bioethics, but unlike my peers I’m also pretty sceptical about the view that general practice is a ‘cop-out’ or a ‘safe option’ for tomorrow’s doctors.
Like many other medical students, I find talking to patients comes pretty naturally. It’s the one part of medical school that I don’t have to Google (it might be more accurate to say – shamefully – Wikipedia), look up in a textbook or guiltily seize the precious time of an enlightened qualified doctor to do well.
My GP placement in the first two years at medical school provided an early opportunity to practice taking a history and examining patients outside of the busy ward environment. The GPs tactically ‘pick’ patients whose symptoms could have been drawn directly from a textbook. I saw classic examples of ‘pink puffers’ and ‘blue bloaters’ on the respiratory placement, heard a heart murmur on the cardiology placement and practiced a cranial nerve examination on a man with Bell’s palsy during the neurology placement. Not only did these patients reinforce scientific teaching but they were also keen to help students learn and forgiving when we didn’t get things right first time.
Yet despite many of my peers having similar positive learning experiences in general practice, many of them still have an aversion to general practice. A fellow medical student told me: ‘Certainly there are those who see it as a back-up job if their attempts to get into other specialties fail. You often hear of people saying, “Oh, if that doesn’t work out I’ll just be a GP.”’ Many of my non-medic friends wonder why I would want to be a GP; pretty 20-somethings view GPs as their ‘go to’ for the morning after pill or antibiotics when their glands are up because they’ve overdone it at university.
Personally, I see a lack of appreciation for what you might call our ‘front-line’ doctors. Maybe it’s because general practice doesn’t seem as glamorous as the specialties; there’s no denying that there is certainly a difference between working in a GPsurgery and working on a hospital ward. Even so, it seems to me that both jobs come with different (and equally valid) pressures.
I’m no Debbie Downer though. I can see that attitudes are changing. A student-led primary care conference organised by Bristol GPSoc earlier this year revealed that you can be ‘more than just a GP’. GPs with special interests such as sexual health, academic GPs and GPs who work abroad gave talks that challenged the misconceptions that many of us – perhaps ignorantly – had about a career in general practice. Despite this, and the existence of ‘gutsy’ movers and shakers in the GP world like Prof Clare Gerada, you’ll still meet many more medical students who declare that they’d rather be a paediatrician or orthopaedic surgeon than a GP.
If medic ‘street cred’ exists then, am I surrendering mine by still liking the idea of a career in general practice?
Chantal Cox-George is a medical student at Bristol University. She is currently undertaking a two-week work experience placement at Pulse.