You know Christmas is looming when you receive the annual Happy Christmas communication from NHS England, which reads something like this: ‘Dear skiving workers, we are unbelievably still in our office at 4 o’clock in the afternoon, and wanted to get this message out to you all before we all share mulled wine with our glorious leader Shakin Stevens in preparation for what is an incredibly busy time for us.
‘Not only do we have to send out regular email updates of the latest hospital black/red/Opel 4/Brexit closure, but we also have to ensure that the proletariat workforce (that’s you guys) keep the whole NHS running.
‘Do not consider, not even for one extended access moment, pausing for breath or slipping down an Aldi’s finest mince pie, when you could (and should) be working yourselves towards an early grave, or, at the very least, an early retirement.
‘We will not be repeating our festive missive to you, mainly because we are now all clearing off for the next few weeks, but if you need to contact us urgently then maybe try the 111 helpline who can message us via the air ambulance service.’
What keeps us going each day, filling our stockings with the worries of our patients?
If you were looking for a Christmas bonus or political recognition then you wouldn’t end up working in UK general practice, which has very little to offer in the way of perks.
I hear even Santa’s little helpers get the odd ride on a reindeer to keep them going for another year, but there are no joyrides to be found here.
So what keeps us going each day, filling our stockings with the worries of our patients, doing daily battle with the inadequacies of secondary care and the wider NHS, having missed out on the Chancellor’s Christmas Scrooge handout?
Well, I suppose it is a number of things. The occasional guiding star which could be a palliative care nurse in the dead of night, or a receptionist comforting a tearful widow.
Small gifts brought to our stable door by patients already struggling on the breadline, or stories of community goodwill as those with the least time seem to give the most to help others.
Moreover there is the glue that keeps us together – our staff, all working like elves to keep the health centres ticking over smoothly and trying to create space for patients. They run the place a bit like a small church, trying to see all-comers and keep the doors open.
My youngest daughter asked recently: ‘How is it that if you believe in God, you get better effort grades in Religious Studies?’
Who knows? God, maybe. However I do know that if you believe in general practice, it’s still not a bad time to be working.
Whether Christmas has a religious meaning for you or not, I wish you well for the coming weeks.
Dr Richard Cook is a GP partner in Hurstpierpoint, West Sussex. You can follow him on Twitter @drmoderate