Jane Bradley: Vitriolic GPs test our patience

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Sometimes, while chatting at a party, if a stranger lets slip that his next door neighbour’s best friend’s dad is having an affair with his secretary, finding out what I do for a living causes major consternation.

“You’re not going to put it on the front page of tomorrow’s Scotsman, are you?” comes the anguished cry. The answer is, umm, no, I’m not. Indeed, this sordid tale might be the top gossip of the day for him, but, with more than a decade of journalistic experience behind me, I know what “news” is, actually, news. And this isn’t it.

My point is, it is highly unlikely that Mr Party Goer, without training and experience, could do my job well. Equally, I probably could not do his. It is even less likely that many of us could do the job of a GP.

Yet, a recent backlash from – granted, over-worked and stressed – general practitioners, seems to expect that we ordinary members of the public should be able to do so. A tide of vitriol is threatening to engulf increasingly bitter doctors, who are becoming angry that patients want to actually see them to have illnesses diagnosed.

GPs are, undeniably, overwhelmed with work. They are underfunded. A typical doctor at a health centre sees around 30 or 40 patients a day, for at most ten minutes each. They are deluged with paperwork and the burdens piled on them via phone consultations and home visits.

According to the British Medical Association, the average person now visits the GP around six times a year – a figure which has doubled in 30 years. There are a number of reasons for this – not least the internet, which, while fuelling hypochondria, also means that serious illnesses are diagnosed earlier than in the past. Life can’t be easy for a GP, but what is a patient to do when they have afflictions which are concerning them? I recently came across a website and Facebook page called GP Doctor, which provides an outlet for GPs to air their grievances. The way it has been used by this supposedly caring profession is appalling.

Posters to the site mock patients – laughing at their lack of knowledge that an illness is “self limiting” (no, me neither) and at patients who save up a list of problems to present to their doctor at one appointment. “Smile. Nod. Phone wife and tell her I will be late home for dinner again,” were the scathing words of one GP poster. Yet on the other hand, they reprimand us for Googling our symptoms.

In recent weeks, I’ve seen dozens of blog posts and newspaper columns written by doctors raising similar points.

What they forget is that they are in a highly privileged position compared to the vast majority of the public. They are intelligent, educated people, with degrees, years of training and cash in their bank accounts. Many of the people they mock, however, are at the other end of the social scale.

One piece cited an Afghan immigrant who asked if his GP could “prescribe” him a pair of shoes. Ha. Sounds ridiculous when you put it like that. However, this chap was probably a refugee, granted asylum in this country without a penny to his name, perhaps barefoot. Imagine that, griping GP, sitting in your comfortable heated house, your feet tucked into a cosy pair of slippers while you eat your takeaway sushi.

Rundown and unwell, he maybe asked someone where he should go for help. “Try a doctor,” he was told. So that was what he did. Not because he actually believed this GP would pull out a prescription pad and magic a pair of Hush Puppies from the nearest chemist, but because it would be a first step on the ladder of getting support. It is likely that, during a consultation in which he asked the doctor to fix his chest infection and rid his head of lice after months in a refugee camp, he was told the GP could refer him to a food bank. It was maybe then that he raised the subject of if, he could get emergency food, could he possibly get emergency shoes too? Not so ridiculous now, eh? The problem is, that in this world of NHS cuts and shortages, the vitriol of disillusioned GPs has become directed at the patients – not the politicians or health boards making their lives more difficult – creating a widening gulf between doctors and patients. They used to – deservedly – have our sympathy, but mine is starting to wane.