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Taking back control

As an FY2, I remember the walk of shame through the A&E waiting room to use our staff toilet. I could feel eyes boring into my back as I was about to cash in my one 30-second sit down of the shift. Sometimes I’d look at the hordes of people in that room, and a feeling of helplessness would flood my caffeine-soaked brain and sink right down into my aching feet.

I’d go home and wonder: how can we ever really improve things? Laying out the equation in my simple brain didn’t give me much hope. Demand will only increase. And much as we might think it’s the answer, I don’t think we’ll ever have enough money. Or staff. Or time.

I remember coming across this animation by Dan Pink on the way home after a long A&E shift. He lists three elements that motivate people, and produce a happy and productive workforce: autonomy, mastery, and purpose. More than money, he suggests that this trio drives, engages, and stimulates us to do our best work.

Medicine inherently has that trio at its core. But that day I remember wondering – will they always be drowned out by the pressures of the system I work in? (And would we ever be able to change that route to the toilet?)

It’s easy to think general practice is no different. The busy-ness of our day feels like it’s everyone else’s fault but ours. Any patient can call up, and get themselves seen. And when we’ve filled all the slots, we simply magic new ones out of thin air and add them to the end. Until the cleaner needs to lock up and go home.

But if I pause a moment and take a step back, it’s not quite like working in A&E. Trying to think about really changing things in a money-hungry, labyrinthine beast like a hospital is overwhelming. But general practice is different.

I recently went to see a practice that has taken back some of that control. At Millbrook surgery in Somerset, one of the partners, Steve Edgar, explained how they revamped their entire appointment system

It was a Friday morning, and the waiting room was half empty. Steve turned on the computer. I felt the familiar dread that I’ve been conditioned to feel on loading up the appointment screen. But it was virtually blank, other than just a few reviews which he’d booked in himself. I was tempted to suggest he restart it.

Steve explained that the morning is kept clear for telephone calls. All patients that call the practice have to speak to a doctor first. The GP might resolve their query on the phone, or decide when and who they should be seen by- and even the length of the appointment they’ll need. The calls are done in the same office, with GPs, nurses, and receptionists sitting side by side.

Something occurred to me then. Ask a senior manager in another industry to cede control of their diaries to their customers, and they’d laugh. But that’s how most GPs work. It’s unsurprising that each day can feel like warfare.

Just over a year ago the practice was struggling to recruit and drowning under insatiable demand. For Steve, changing how he works has started to bring the joy back into what he does. He sees patients that really need to be seen, and can give them the time and continuity that he knows makes all the difference.

Creating a bit of headspace also allowed him to make some other improvements. They’ve introduced a new role called ‘Health Coaches’, who each take on a list of complex patients and oversee their social work, care navigation and basic clinical needs. Steve steps in with his medical expertise when he’s needed. No more hours playing phone ping-pong trying to work out how to get a commode.

Three times a week the practice also comes together for a ‘team huddle’, where they discuss their most complex patients. Every person in the building joins in, including the receptionists and admin staff who often spot problems before anyone else.

Autonomy, mastery and purpose. They’re inherent in the career we’ve chosen. Yet they can feel buried beneath rising demand, increasing complexity and dwindling resources.

But I was reminded how that locus of control is a bit closer in general practice. It takes time, and a willingness to consider working differently- both of which we’ll never feel we have enough of. But as GPs we’re one step closer to our patients, our staff, and the culture of our workplace to really shape the way we work.

It’s a unique strength of general practice. The difference to secondary care is stark, but something we can take for granted. Especially once you’ve been out of a monolithic hospital for a while – and forgotten what it’s like to walk through a waiting room to the toilet.

Dr Nishma Manek is a GP trainee in London