This site is intended for health professionals only

Why we decided to open our practice to the media

With the million and one things GPs have to deal with on a busy weekday, why would you want some bothersome journalists poking around your practice, pointing microphones towards your staff and asking awkward questions about appointments, targets and what DNA stands for, if not to do with your genes?

Worse still, why would you voluntarily allow unpredictable patients to vent about GP practices to a national audience, especially as primary care has so many critics?

But while other surgeries may have refused a media request to open their practice to scrutiny, it was something we at SSP Health decided to welcome. How can the public understand the immense pressures we all face if they don’t hear about them and our new methods to tackle these challenges?

SSP Health runs 35 practice sites across the North West of England after we pioneered the federated model back in 2002, and 140,000 patients rely on our care.

We want to showcase positive changes to a public who usually only sees negative headlines about primary care, and welcoming BBC Radio 5 Live’s drivetime show into Bolton Medical Centre was a great opportunity.

We allowed presenter Tony Livesey and health correspondent Dominic Hughes to broadcast from our reception area, and the 5 Live team reflected the pressures and innovations in our busy Bolton practice.

The show also revealed the passion our staff have for the NHS and patient care, validating their hard work, day-in, day-out.

How can the public understand the immense pressures we all face if they don’t hear about them?

The three-hour show covered issues such as self-care; DNAs; opioid prescribing; appropriateness of home visits; receptionist triaging and new colleagues (ANPs, APs, HCAs, in-practice pharmacists, paramedics and physios) treating patients; the abuse of appointments; increasing lists sizes; and the relentless growth in demand for our services.

Tony interviewed a range of staff, including we GPs; our pharmacist; practice manager; nurse; medical secretary about triaging; and even some patients and the clinical director of Bolton CCG. The daily life of the practice was documented, including a home visit with locum GP Dr Mariyam Malik.

What did we get out of it? Hopefully, the public gained more knowledge of how the modern GP surgery works, and understands their role in helping to keep a lid on the pressures. It also boosted morale, with national recognition for staff’s care. 

Although allowing journalists over the threshold was positive for us, there are a things practices must do to make the most of similar experiences.

Discuss with the producer beforehand about what both the media and the practice want to get out of it. Talk through the angles with them – after all, very few journalists focus solely on healthcare and may need to learn about current issues.

Try to satisfy their demands in which people they want to talk to, but remember you’re in charge, so feel free to politely decline specific aspects. Reassure staff who want to be involved that they won’t be grilled, Andrew Neil-style, and get a few extra staff in case someone drops out.

Remind the media that patient confidentiality and satisfaction is paramount, so this means talking to patients about what is happening, happily allowing them to refuse to be interviewed and talking through the implications if they do want to feature. Any patient who does must sign a consent form and posters in the surgery advertising the recording is also a good idea. Ask permission of the owner of your building to allow the media on their premises and it’s always polite to inform your CCG’s communications team.

Prepare for the unexpected, be flexible, have someone on hand to help the media team out, make them a brew or lay on sandwiches – and be prepared for a long but rewarding day. I’m sure you won’t regret it.

Dr Shikha Pitalia is a GP in Wigan and director of SSP Health