Domhnall MacAuley: RCGP Annual Primary Care Conference 2010

Domhnall MacauleyLeadership. Today’s trendy word, endlessly abused, was back on stage at the 4th RCGP annual meeting in Harrogate. Tanni Grey-Thompson multiple Paralympic gold medallist told us of the pain and pleasure of achievement at the highest level, the grind of training, the setbacks, the importance of goal setting, the ecstasy of winning and the glory of victory. Both entertaining and inspirational, she told her story of an extraordinary athletic career. But, for most of us, life isn’t like that. There are no gold medals in general practice, no finish line, no final goals or medal ceremonies. No matter how good today’s performance, tomorrow’s waiting room never empties.  Striving for sporting excellence may be relentless and draining, but there is an end.

Steve Field, coming to the end of his term as chairman of the RCGP gave his final swansong before he hands over the reins to a new team. He could have opted for a rousing self congratulatory political speech but he didn’t. That’s not his style.  He spoke softly of the privilege of being a GP; one’s influence on people’s lives, sharing their sorrows and secrets and acting as a navigator, counsellor, and supporter in time of need. But, in his quiet understated way he also had a strong message. He pointed out that, even with the great achievements of the RCGP and quality of most UK general practitioners, some GPs do not come up to the standards we would like for our families and friends.  He told us of the need to tackle poor performance and that multiplying even a small number of underperforming doctors by their patient list, means a lot of patients are at risk. He felt that revalidation was a response to a system that had failed and that a good appraisal system would have prevented those failures. He did not see a place now for single handed practice – doctors must share and learn together in partnership even if arrangements are loose and flexible. He told us that, during his chairmanship, he met some inspirational colleagues but also despaired at the poor treatment of the homeless, asylum seekers, travelling people, and sex workers – those without a voice.

This was a man looking back and feeling he had unfinished business. But, he has done so much. He worked hard for the College and in addition to his public achievements, he made huge efforts to communicate with members, lobbied behind the scenes, and wasn’t afraid to work with the media. In private, I have seen him frustrated at misquotation, selective interpretation of his intentions, and the slow pace of progress. I don’t think he yet appreciates the influence he has had on the College. What came across in this address was his humility and generosity, his recognition and praise of those around him, his belief in the ability of those to follow him but, most of all his understanding of the needs of patients. Daily misuse of the word leadership has left it so threadbare it has almost lost its meaning but, in the true sense of the word, he showed it. 

Real life doesn’t award gold medals. Achievement is hard to measure whether you are a GP or the chairman of the College. One benefit of attending a conference like this is to reaffirm the value of what we do and inspire us for the future. Lets leave the final quotation to Tanni who wouldn’t have recognised the resonance of her sentiment when she said “winning doesn’t always feel like winning.” I hope that some day Steve will be able to look back and appreciate the value of what he has done, and so should we.