Who do GPs go to when they need help?

johanna-spiersBy Johanna Spiers
Research associate
Centre for Academic Primary Care

GPs often say they make the worst patients, but who do they turn to when they need help? That’s what I aim to find out on a new research project about GPs with mental health issues.

My new job is firmly at the centre of the zeitgeist. GPs are all over the news on a daily basis. Doctors are judged by journalists and picked apart by politicians for running unsafe surgeries, for closing their doors to new patients, and for long waiting lists. If you read (and believe) certain sectors of the UK press, you might be forgiven for thinking that GPs have a lot to answer for.

The reality is, of course, way more complex than the Daily Fail might have us believe. Yes, GPs are retiring early. Yes, many practices are unable to add new names to their books. However, rather than this being down to disregard for doing the job properly, the situation is a result of a system that is bursting at the seams. The population is growing and ageing, and GPs are drastically understaffed and underfunded, with the RCGP reporting in 2014 that while primary care is responsible for 90% of NHS patient contacts, they received only 8.5% of the budget. Given all this, it’s small wonder that GPs are more stressed, depressed, anxious and suicidal than the rest of the population.

My job will be to interview GPs who are living with mental health issues, those who have returned to work following treatment, or those who have retired early as a result and analyse what they tell us about their experiences. Recruitment for our study may be challenging given the culture of invulnerability that permeates healthcare professions and the stigma still attached to mental health conditions. However, I suspect that there will be GPs out there who want to talk about the challenges they face, and that what they tell us will yield important and interesting findings.

My first task in this job has been to read the existing qualitative research in the field in order to write a systematic review of that work. Something that has overwhelmingly struck me as I read the existing work is the bias in both the language and the method of tackling stress and burnout among healthcare workers. Some authors talk about how better ‘time management’ would ease stress, while others place importance on the ‘resilience’ of staff.

It seems to me that if we want safe and supportive working environments for those who take care of us, rather than asking doctors and nurses to manage their time more effectively, we need changes at a governmental, organisational and collegial level. Staff should be given workloads that are manageable within the working day, not blamed if they can’t squeeze twenty patients into ten patient slots.  Hopefully our work here at CAPC can go some way to informing future policy to this effect.

If you would like to get involved in the study, or for more information, please see the study website.

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