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03 November 2014

Medical Emergency: The NHS needs your prayers

Medical Emergency: The NHS needs your prayers

By Dr Emma Hayward

I pray as I arrive at work: "God, give me wisdom."

As a General Practitioner my days are full of decisions. Every 10-minute appointment contains numerous small crossroads and points of decision. Taking the right path could lead to vital clues about the patient's condition. I pray that I will follow the right paths to make a timely and accurate diagnosis and to choose the best treatment for each person. During a normal day, I would see just over 30 patients, but it's now common for the 'duty doctor' – designated to deal with emergencies – to have contact with double this number in the course of a morning.

GP workload is increasing rapidly for a number of reasons. It would be easy to put it all down to the ageing population and the greater burden of ill-health carried by people in their later years, but there are other forces at play. My impression is that people are turning to the health service for help at difficult times of life – bereavement, for example – when a few decades ago those problems would have been dealt with by the wider family or the parish priest. Loneliness is rife and some people make an appointment with me because I'm the only person they can have a conversation with. I don't mind being a listening ear, but I feel deeply saddened that a paltry ten minutes with me is the best some people can hope for.

GP numbers are falling. Training schemes for doctors wishing to enter the speciality remain unfilled.With long hours, highly demanding work and constant criticism from the media, it's not hard to see why doctors choose to train in another speciality. Today's medical graduates also have tens of thousands of pounds of student debt. I can understand why many choose more lucrative specialities or take the uncertain path of locum work that brings higher short-term gains. While medicine is a vocation and most doctors routinely put patients' needs ahead of their own, it's not unreasonable for young doctors to aspire to pay off their debt. However, the individualism and 'me first' attitude seen in wider society also affects the medical profession. The most deprived and demanding areas of the country are also the places with fewest GPs per head.

Qualified GPs are leaving the profession early – the average age for a female GP leaving is 34 – moving abroad or working part-time in higher numbers than ever before.I choose to work part-time because this is the only way I can envisage being able to work for the next three decades without suffering from burnout. Stress is common among GPs as we take sole responsibility for so many decisions each day. In an ideal world we would never miss a diagnosis and never make a mistake.

I turn up for work each day wanting to do a good job and when I make a mistake, as we all do, being human, I feel terrible for the person affected. More than 40 per cent of GPs are thought to be at risk of burnout. The pressure feels greater because expectations of us are so high. The media bears much responsibility for this, with constant negative stories of missed diagnoses alongside headlines about our supposed pay and conditions. Ultimately, this has the effect of demoralising GPs and undermining patients' trust in us. Trust is fundamental to the doctor-patient relationship. Without it, all is lost.

I write as a GP, but fully aware that the pressures I face are mirrored by my colleagues in hospital and throughout the healthcare professions. I would love to see the Church rising up in the face of these challenges.

The church can pray:

  • For the staff of the NHS, their health and wellbeing as they serve sacrificially
  • For the decision makers as they seek to structure a health service to support the needy, which does not have the resources to be all things, to all people, all the time. They need courage to make difficult decisions
  • For the nation, that we would be willing to think of others before ourselves as we seek healthcare and provide it

We can act

  • By talking to people, combatting the loneliness that afflicts so many
  • By providing a safe place in our churches for healthcare workers to be refreshed and renewed
  • By challenging the media to report the truth

Dr Emma Hayward
GP and Clinical Educator