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Protected learning time is not a luxury

The value placed on staff development is often a useful barometer to the culture and outlook of an organisation. An engaged and valued workforce tends to be a happy, productive and effective workforce.

Of course, in the NHS, numerous pressures mean that it can be difficult to achieve the Zen approach to staff happiness that big multinationals like Google and Apple are often cited as being able to achieve.

However, whilst recognising the frustrations, limitations and sometimes downright atrocious decision-making to be found in our NHS, most of us still manage to find professional satisfaction with the patient contact that is part-and-parcel of daily GP-ing, fixing unwellness, reducing suffering and the privilege of fostering therapeutic rapport.

Recent terrorist events in England in particular have demonstrated how a pressured and undervalued system is still able to demonstrate awesome levels of staff dedication through the medium of goodwill, united at these times by the common purpose of patient care.

Here in Scotland, there is a particular issue that has served to undervalue practice staff on an increasing basis. Once upon a time, GP practices used to benefit from a concept called ‘Protected Learning Time’. PLT meant that practices could close for an afternoon – usually once every couple of months – and divert any urgent calls to NHS24 to be covered by a centralised on-call system.

It was an essential means of team-building, keeping practice teams updated, and feeding staff morale with positivity and collective engagement. Rural practices depended on PLT sessions to bring geographically widespread teams together and harness the team’s community knowledge that every GP depends on daily.

And then it stopped.

Since March we have been declined further PLTs for a variety of reasons. There have been difficulties staffing centralised rotas, and our NHS24 system has been busy installing a new IT system for the past six months.

However, it appears that this much valued ‘down time’ for practices to develop, team-build and calibrate visions, has been seen as a dispensable luxury.

This sits uncomfortably with the growing need for exactly this type of small-scale collaboration. Amidst the implementation of key policies such as ‘cluster working’, integration of health and social care, and empowering multidisciplinary team structures, it seems bizarre that one of the most effective collaboration tools that GP practices had has simply been removed without any clear promise for reinstatement.

This seems to fly in the face of the title of our latest guide to Cluster Working in Scotland – ‘Improving Together’ is possible only if we have the means to bring together the cogs that are vital for making every GP practice and primary care team tick.

If we are to be serious about implementing the messages from higher echelons of strategic development in Scotland, we must see the reinstatement of PLT urgently and recognise that teams need time to talk.

Dr David Hogg is a GP on the Isle of Arran and Chair of the Rural GP Association of Scotland. He writes in a personal capacity. You can follow him on Twitter @davidrhogg