Interview: RCGP must keep in touch with grassroots

RCGP chair-elect Dr Maureen Baker advocates contact with front-line GPs.

'My memory of that time was that the college was like a bridge for its members,' says Dr Maureen Baker of her high-profile role as RCGP flu lead during the 2009 pandemic.

The college played a key part, supporting GPs and feeding back their concerns to NHS leaders, she says. 'I was very much the visible face of the college. If people know of me, they tend to know of me from that.'

Dr Baker, a GP since 1985, former RCGP honorary secretary and now its chairwoman-elect, is keen to emphasise her long-standing links with the college. After losing out to current chairwoman Professor Clare Gerada in 2010 and surviving a rerun of this year's election after technical problems, she was voted into the top job earlier this month.

Continuity and change

While there were congratulations all round on her election, there was agreement that Professor Gerada would be a tough act to follow.

Dr Baker's approach is to emphasise continuity, while hinting at change. 'Clare is a hard act to follow, but I've worked very closely with every chair of the college since Mike Pringle and they're all hard acts to follow,' she says. 'I'm very conscious of the great tradition I'm following in. I'm not Clare Gerada, I'm Maureen Baker and I'll do the best job I can.'

She plans to work closely with Professor Gerada until she takes over in November. 'What we hope to see is a continuum where her policies are carried forward as a focus of my work next year.'

Faced with the tumultuous change the Health and Social Care Act has brought to the profession, the college's changing, more political role, has been welcomed by many.

Dr Baker says that role is one the college must take on when circumstances demand. 'Clare Gerada didn't pick her opposition to the Health and Social Care Bill,' she says, 'it coincided with her term in office. I think every chair would say they have to deal with what's on the table at the time.'

But, she says, there has to be a balance between campaigning on the political issues that affect GPs, and the academic and professional work of the college. This, she says, has been understandably less visible in recent years, but remains important.

The right leadership approach depends on the issue at hand, she adds: 'In the campaign to direct more resources into general practice, that's de facto quite political.

'There are other challenges for the college. For instance, how we manage multimorbidity - one of the reasons we need more resources. But I think that needs more of an academic and professional argument, as opposed to a more public-facing one.'

Again stressing continuity, Dr Baker says she will continue the work of the General Practice 2022 strategy, launched last year as a blueprint for the future of the profession.

The threats to the profession are clear. Dr Baker identifies a crisis of demand - from rising patient numbers and demographic change, and demands from government, all while funding is driven down.

'We are being squeezed from both ends,' she says, arguing that the college is the body to support GPs and practices facing those challenges.

Higher visibility

One way the college can improve that support is to open up to the membership, she believes. This applies in particular to the RCGP council, which she wants to become more visible and accessible.

She is committed to finding new ways for members to lobby and connect with council representatives. 'The council is the democratic arm of the college and I feel we should be using this much more,' she says.

Communication with grassroots members is, for Dr Baker, a key role for the college and one she plans to maintain as RCGP chairwoman.

'I have no intention of retreating behind a protective veil. I want to be very accessible.' She is clearly proud to have been elected three times to the RCGP council, which she says shows her connection to the membership.

The lack of women at the top of the GPC and BMA was set for debate at this month's UK LMCs conference.

As the RCGP's second chairwoman in a row, what does Dr Baker think about the difference between the two bodies?

'The college is an organisation where being a woman and a working mum hasn't been a barrier,' she says. 'If it had been difficult to progress and take roles in the college when I had a young family, I couldn't have done it and I wouldn't have.'

Part of Dr Baker's plan to stay in touch with the grassroots involves continuing work as a GP in Lincoln.

Returning to her flu pandemic role, she says it was a good example of communication with the front line. 'It was very much two-way communication. Should we face threats in future, I think the college can draw on its experience and do the best it can again to help GPs and practices.'

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