Columnist Dr Zoe Rog reflects on how working harder and longer takes the joy out of being a doctor
The sun was out, the birds were singing, and the trees were in blossom. It was a Saturday morning full of promise; I was in my practice spring booster Covid vaccination clinic. I drew up the next dose and dug deep for inspiration. The cattle market of side-effect explanations and injections really drains enthusiasm. Turning, I saw an elderly man shuffling towards me. As we recognised one another, his face lit up with a delighted expression.
‘Dr Rog! I haven’t seen you for about three years now. How lovely to see you!’ He used to come and see me regularly about his multiple health conditions. He now looked smaller and frailer, shrinking into old age. After his vaccine, he struggled to his feet and turned to me, his eyes full of hope. ‘It’s difficult to get an appointment now, you know. The phone queue goes on for hours and then there aren’t any appointments left. I’ve given up trying,’ he said gazing at me beseechingly.
I smiled confidently. ‘Appointments are available every day,’ I told him. ‘We release appointments for patients to book in advance, too. If you ring again, hopefully you’ll get an appointment.’ I noticed that my voice wasn’t as reassuring as I’d hoped. My patient’s shoulders slumped; the brightness left his face. ‘Ah well, thanks anyway, doctor. It really was nice seeing you.’ He shuffled away dejectedly.
I felt terrible. My thoughts wrestled with themselves uncomfortably. This was a vaccination clinic, and I didn’t even have the appointments system open. Surely it was unfair to book an appointment because he asked me when everyone else had to telephone. I thought of the reasonable things I’d say to my trainee about safe workload and patients assuming responsibility to make appointments.
After my patient left, I wondered how long he would be mobile enough to get to the practice. What would I want if he was my relative? I felt really terrible. I resolved to telephone him and squeeze him in for an appointment with me. I felt slightly less terrible. I knew though that I would telephone him late on Monday evening before I drove home to log on again and finish my prescriptions.
Later, when catching up on emails, I saw a link to a BBC careers poll from my daughter’s school, which surveyed 4,000 teenagers aged 13 to 16. It suggested that more than three quarters (77%) of young people don’t consider money to be the biggest motivator for choosing a career. The top answer for the biggest motivator was feeling good about what we do.
In the ranking of most popular future careers, doctor came in third place. With headlines dominated by the cost-of-living crisis and NHS workers striking for more pay, at first, I thought the survey results were touchingly naïve. But doesn’t everyone deserve to feel good about what they do? In today’s NHS, we are working harder and longer and running to stand still. Feeling good about it is fast becoming the elusive pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.
Interestingly, politician didn’t feature in the most popular careers in the survey. But some of those teenagers, or others like them, will need to become politicians. Preferably not those skulking around in the depths of the survey pool, who voted for money and dream of power and a life of self-serving despotism. The GPs of today and tomorrow are depending on them to ensure we can feel good about our work once more.
Dr Zoe Rog is a GP in Runcorn, Cheshire