A Family Doctor’s Casebook (part 1)

General practice partnerships are like marriage without the sex, muses Geoff as he installs himself at his consulting room desk.  He knows that kind of marriage. Shoving aside the piles of letters that need answering, he begins tending to the sick of North London.

Geoff is a GP from my novels One Night at the Jacaranda and Hampstead Fever.  Despite his problems and hang-ups, he’s everyone’s favourite. Geoff is a firm believer in the NHS, but the changes he’s seen in the 15 years since he qualified frustrate him immensely.

1 The first patient is a three-month old baby with the Lexus of pushchairs and a Yummy Mummy who reminds Geoff of his ex-wife.  She begins by complaining about the 20-minute wait, and the perennial parking problems within a mile of the health centre. All this is extremely inconvenient as she’ll now be late for her Pilates.

Geoff asks what he can do for her.

“It’s Alistair’s head,” she throws down like a gauntlet.

She’s right in thinking her baby’s skull is a tad asymmetrical. Plagiocephaly is common now that babies all sleep on their backs.  Geoff reassures her that it’ll right itself in time, once Alistair lifts his head and becomes more mobile.

FreeImages.com/Johan Graterol POSED BY MODEL

Yummy Mummy is sceptical. “Doesn’t he need one of those special helmets?”

Geoff explains that there’s no evidence they help.

The mother seems unconvinced. She’ll probably go and splash out thousands of pounds on a contraption that will only cause discomfort and inconvenient. Still, she’s now ready to move on to the next symptom. The practice has a new policy of one symptom per consultation, which Geoff routinely ignores. It’s demeaning to patients and wastes everyone’s time in the end.

The rash on Alistair’s buttocks looks like a common yeast infection which should soon respond to the cream Geoff recommends. This pleases the mother, until Geoff asks her not to leave Alistair’s dirty nappy in his consulting room bin.

“I don’t want to stink out the car,” says Yummy Mummy.

Geoff eventually persuades her to take the offending object away, even though he thinks she’s likely to dump it in the waiting room on her way out.

2 Next it’s Mr Legg in his nineties, with an aching left knee. Sometimes it’s his right knee, and sometimes it’s both, which is no wonder since both legs are badly deformed by arthritis. He attends the health centre every couple of weeks, yet refuses hospital treatment. As he puts it, “I don’t want to be a bother. There’s plenty of younger folks who need it more.” Mr Legg adds that he doubts it’s arthritis anyway.  “It’s probably just down to the shrapnel what got me during the war.”

Geoff asks where the shrapnel got him.

“In a little village near Germany, Doctor.”

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3 It’s a relief to see that young Mohammed’s eczema is improving. For a long while, his mother believed that a mild steroid was totally unsuitable for a three-year old, but the cream, along with emollients, has made a huge difference. Mohammed sleeps well now that he doesn’t scratch himself to ribbons. All in all, he’s a happy chappy, apart from a streaming cold that’s not a problem until he flings himself at Geoff and plonks a kiss on his cheek.

Geoff usually washes his hands between consultations. Today he washes his face as well.

FreeImages.com/Toni Mihailov

 

4 Now a young man sits before him. Unemployed, with a squat nose and tats up one arm. “Pain in me bollocks,” he says.

Might be a torsion. Uncommon in adults, Geoff knows, but, unless treated promptly, it can lead to gangrene of the testicle.

“Right. I need to take a look,” Geoff says, pulling the paper curtains across.

As he waits for the fellow to undress, he wipes the photo on his desk with a tissue. It’s Davey, aged four, at the beach in Norfolk. Happy days before the divorce.

“Ready yet?” Geoff calls out, increasingly aware of how late his clinic is running.

“Yeah. Course.”

Turns out the man is sitting fully clothed the other side of the drapes.

Patiently, Geoff explains what he needs to examine. Another three minutes pass while the man undresses.

On examination there’s nothing abnormal about the patient’s tackle, apart from the stink. Geoff peels off his gloves and flings them in the bin. “Hmm. All’s well there. When did you first get the pain?”

The man shrugs. “Maybe a week ago. But I ain’t got it no more, like. Not since I pulled that bird the other day.”

“Fair enough,” says Geoff, even though there’s nothing fair about it. The ugly, unemployed fucker gets laid just like that, while he, Geoff, has been celibate for ten months and counting.

***

Coming up soon, Geoff deals with a very personal problem. Meanwhile you may enjoy one of these posts:

How to Alienate Your Doctor in Ten Easy Steps

What Your Doctor is Really Saying

or, on a more serious note, an overview of sepsis in The Disease Nobody Knows About Until It’s Too Late.

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Warning: A Doctor Rants

Vaccines had a bad press a few years ago, but things have changed, or so I thought. That’s why I was surprised when this week a university student refused the freshers’ dose of meningitis C vaccineFreeImages.com/Antonio Jiménez AlonsoI was even more surprised when he told me that his father, a doctor in another European country, was against vaccination.

What would you have done?  

University students are at higher risk of meningitis. One in four 15-19 year olds carries meningococcal bacteria in the back of the throat, as opposed to one in 10 of the general UK population. And, if you haven’t been a fresher for a while, imagine all that mingling with hundreds of other young people, often in crowded conditions.  

There’s lots of useful info on meningitis, and on vaccines.  Alas, I only know sites for fluent English speakers, and the lad in front of me wasn’t one of them.

I jokingly told him I wanted words with his dad. But in reality that was never going to happen. In general practice there’s barely time for a long discussion with a patient, let alone with family. Photo by Jean Scheijen FreeImages.com/Jean ScheijenConsultation rates with GPs have gone up in the last 20 years to around eight consultations per person a year. Along with that, patient expectations have risen. No bad thing in itself, but it requires more time.

Many areas are bulging with an influx of new patients. London has a particularly mobile population but it’s not the only place where there are migrants, refugees, or simply new housing. Some arrivals speak little English, so interpreters are needed, and the consultation takes twice as long as a result.

The pattern of work has shifted. As hospitals shed more care onto general practice, and send patients home sooner, GPs inevitably must do more. Around 90% of medical care now takes place in surgeries, by GPs, nurses and other members of the health team.

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The structure of health care has changed with the advent of clinical commissioning groups (CCGs). In my view, that work takes a lot of good GPs away from face-to-face patient care.

Professional development makes demands too. I have to keep up to date, and these days I also have to prove it via appraisal and revalidation. People believed something had to be done post-Shipman, so now we spend time counting lots of things that don’t count. I hope that changes, but meanwhile preparing for annual appraisal takes two hours a week.

Providing good medical care is now a real struggle. GPs are retiring, and a sizeable chunk of medics are leaving the country.

Australian and UK towels on the beach

There’s nobody to replace them.

Like many GPs, I teach medical students. That time too must come out of a busy week. But here’s what really worries me about teaching.  

In the last 10 years I’ve noticed that fewer students now want to be GPs. Yet not so long ago new doctors were falling over each other to join practices.

It’s no wonder that doctors in the UK are angry and fed up. New changes imposed by government are likely to make things worse. In many areas, NHS general practice can barely provide a decent service five days a week. How can it stretch to seven days?

I’m not against change. General practice changes all the time. That’s part of its attraction as a speciality. But the developments I’ve lived through now make it almost impossible to do the job properly.

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You may like to read: 

Numbers of NHS doctors registering to work overseas could reach unprecedented record in the Independent, September 21, 2015

A fictional GP reflects on What They Don’t Teach at Medical School

I muse on What Happens when You Become a Doctor.

Easy tweet: What’s wrong with general practice? http://wp.me/p3uiuG-15w A #doctor rants #NHS via @DrCarolCooper