Career planning: Taking a GP sabbatical

If you dream of working somewhere new as a GP, consider the plans and practicalities first, advises Professor Rodger Charlton.

A sabbatical is a chance to take time out, recharge, be involved in general practice somewhere else for a while and come back refreshed, bringing new skills to the practice. What are the practicalities and how can you take a sabbatical?

1 Practice agreement

A sabbatical or prolonged study leave clause needs to be negotiated and put into your practice agreement, so everyone has a chance to participate. It may be for a short period; for example, for three months once every five or 10 years.

What you do with the time is up to you, but ideally, it should bring something of value back to the practice, whether that is simply you as a member of staff being refreshed, or a new skill, such as having learnt how to inject knee joints.

2 Practicalities for the practice

Your practice is going to be without you for a defined period. Either your colleagues can take on your workload while you are away, or a long-term locum (someone with whom everyone is happy) can be employed to do your work. This, ideally, would be someone who knows the practice, such as a former GP registrar or recently retired partner.

Difficulties may arise if such a person is unavailable, or becomes sick or unavailable themselves during the period of work. You may, in this case, be required to return to your post.

This all needs to be set out in the practice agreement. You also need to consider whether you or your practice will pay for any locum. If you are doing locum work yourself, it makes payment easier.

3 What will taking a sabbatical involve?

For a GP, a likely option is to be a locum in another part of the world, or of the UK, that would offer a new perspective. For example, a GP in an inner-city practice might consider a sabbatical in rural Scotland.

Wherever you choose, it should be somewhere you can experience a new healthcare system, undertake new challenges and learn new skills or update ones you have lost.

When I went to New Zealand on sabbatical, I got a post in a university. Although it was unpaid, I gained experience in teaching, guidance and mentorship, and had access to suitable locum posts to fund my time there.

Many countries accept UK GP qualifications, such as New Zealand, Australia and Canada. I have seen occasional advertisements for GPs to work in the Falkland Islands. There are also many voluntary medical organisations you can work for.

Rather than working as a locum, you may decide you would prefer to go on a course, which is equally good and overcomes the next hurdle.

4 What about my family?

What you do on your sabbatical will require planning, but if you go overseas, what happens to your family and your house? If you have children, the ideal time to do this is before they start school and certainly before secondary school. More than anything, they will not want to leave their friends.

See how your partner can fit into the plan - they may be able to take a sabbatical too.

This all needs a lot of planning; I would say at least 12 months, if not longer, to cover all eventualities. For example, if you are on the other side of the world, can you come back quickly for a crisis if you need to?

5 Be aware of the impact

General practice is tough in the UK at present and fulfilling that dream of going where the grass is greener can be extremely unsettling, particularly if you decide the grass really is greener.

Be prepared for this - it took me 20 years to get New Zealand out of my system. Bear in mind that even though you may be having a great time while you are away, your children and your partner may be unsettled and unhappy and want to come home. Take all this into account when you are planning - this is a major life event.

6 Reflection

The greatest thing a sabbatical gives you is thinking time. General practice is so busy, there is often no time to think ahead and plan.

This is invaluable. It might be that you decide to reduce sessions, take up a clinical assistant post or, as I did, change practice.

Most importantly, you will come back refreshed and your practice will be better for it, as will your patients, particularly if you have had time to relax, unwind and gain new skills.

  • Professor Charlton is a GP near Solihull and professor of primary care education at the University of Nottingham.

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