Tuesday, 24 September 2019 17:22

Relationships: the foundation to being an effective leader and GP

 Rachel Steen, GPST3 in Sheffield
Last week I met Adam. I was at an educational event with a group of GPs at a local alcohol recovery support service. Adam told us about his drinking. He had lost his job, and his family had called the police because they hadn’t seen him for over a week. He drove home (after a bottle of vodka) to find police at his mum’s house and his family in despair. He had hit rock bottom. During this crisis he had support from his GP and the local alcohol support service. He told me about their hope, kindness and human connection. For Adam these made all the difference. Building good relationships with health professionals helped Adam rebuild his life. Relationships with patients and our colleagues are the cornerstone of a GP’s work.


The caring nature which destined many of us to a career in medicine can all too easily be worn down over time. When I first started as a GP trainee in a deprived area of Sheffield I would sometimes make a patient a cup of tea, or post a letter for someone who couldn’t get to the post office. This wasn’t my job but I was a human helping another human. Later in the job, as the workload mounted, I found that I was doing these things less and perhaps was showing less empathy and compassion for my patients.


A couple of years ago, two things happened that helped me recognise the importance of relationships above everything else:

  1. I joined Next Generation GP in South Yorkshire
  2. I started a health equity leadership fellowship through Health Education England.  

Next Generation GP and the leadership fellowship gave me the permission and confidence to explore my own values, opportunities and interests, within General Practice and beyond. It reasserted the importance of relationships. So much of leadership is about caring for people. Whether it is with a patient, a colleague or a friend, the more vulnerable a person is the more important it is to show you care. Of course, it’s important that we know stuff and can ‘do’ the medicine, but fundamentally we must also have a system where we can continue to really care and advocate for the most vulnerable of our patients, whilst also caring for ourselves. It’s a hard balance.


One important indirect way of looking after ourselves is through looking after each other. Over the last year I have been working on ‘fairhealth’, an online educational resource for tackling health inequities. Among a number of projects with fairhealth I have been supporting newly qualified GPs working in deprived areas across Yorkshire and Humber in the ‘Trailblazer scheme’. In their feedback, the Trailblazer GPs told us how taking time out of their busy week to share stories with each other became a key support for them. I feel similarly about the peer support that Next Generation GP has provided me, in my local cohort and nationally. I have joined a network of early career GPs where we swap stories, discuss topical health care politics, support each other and even just meet for coffee if we find ourselves nearby. Being part of a group of like-minded people feels so much more affirming than feeling like you are tackling problems on your own. 


The last year has given me optimism that things we do as GPs can make a difference. Engaging with programmes like fairhealth can help health professionals to develop their learning around tackling health inequities and support vulnerable groups, emphasising the importance of building relationships. Our intention is to enable more people like Adam to be supported better. So much of the discourse about vulnerable communities in the media conceptualises behaviour change as being about free choice and depicts people in deprived communities as choosing to give up on themselves. In fact, it is us as a society, and sometimes us as health professionals, who are giving up on the vulnerable members of our communities. Through empathy, compassion, hope, empowerment - as well as practical, tangible steps specific to individuals and their communities - we can help change people’s lives. I’ve learnt not to let a busy day, week or month get in the way of making real connections with people. For me this is what being a GP and a good leader is all about.

To find out more visit https://www.fairhealth.org.uk/