The day before a new health select committee is elected, GP and new MP for Vale of Clwyd Dr James Davies is lobbying fellow Conservative members for their vote.
A photo of Dr Davies outside a hospital on his letter to MPs makes his pitch clear: Dr Davies knows the NHS. And not just ‘the NHS’: being from north Wales, he has worked in both the English and Welsh versions. Many of his new constituents use both services.
Dr Davies says he hopes to continue to work as a locum in the Chester practice where he has worked as a partner and salaried GP since 2008, to keep in touch with the ‘reality on the ground’, he tells GPonline when we meet on the terrace of the House of Commons’ Strangers Bar.
Dr Davies overturned a 2,500-vote Labour majority to take the seat after a dramatic recount by just 237 votes. Now representing his home constituency where he also worked his year of house jobs at the Glan Clwyd hospital, Dr Davies, whose father was a medical professional and whose wife is a district nurse, tells GPonline that part of his new role will be to champion general practice. That ambition was given a boost the following day when Tory MPs elected him onto the health committee where he joins chairwoman and former GP Dr Sarah Wollaston.
There has in recent years, says Dr Davies, been ‘far too much GP bashing’ from some politicians. He wants to set them straight. ‘There is a running background commentary from some [politicians] who don't really know much about the health service,' he says.
‘I think the public is frustrated because it can't get appointments. That's one of the key things you hear on the doorstep. And some politicians reflect that in what they say without perhaps understanding the background and the fact there is a shortage of GPs.’ At the mention of ‘GP bashing’, many GPs would look straight in the direction of the government. Dr Davies says the problems is ‘generally not high profile people’. Ministers, he believes, do understand the workforce and capacity problem.
The widespread view that GPs were overpaid and underworked didn't reflect reality."
GPs, he says, have a bad name because of a wrong view of the 2004 new GMS contract. ‘There was a widespread view that GPs were overpaid and underworked’, he says, ‘which didn't reflect reality’. Those portraying the effects of the contract in that way failed to understand the size and complexity of workloads and that ‘in real terms GP income has dropped since then’, he says.
Health secretary Jeremy Hunt has, of course, regularly attacked the 2004 contract calling it a ‘historic mistake’ by Labour which broke GPs’ personal responsibility for patients.
The negative view of the profession perpetuated by politics and the media means many medical students see it as a route to avoid, Dr Davies says. So he wants to use his new platform to champion the profession in the corridors of power.
‘A lot of it will be correcting the views of people who may be misguided in their opinions of general practice. ‘It will be trying to explain the reality as well as doing what I can to see general practice thrive, seeing the right policies in terms of recruitment, pay and autonomy for GPs.’
Dr Davies says he was given a positive view of the profession as a medical student, of the variety, the community setting, and the chance to run the business side of general practice.
Like others who have experienced both the political and clinical surgery, Dr Davies says there are similarities. As a GP, he says, you deal with many of the same social issues that a politician does, housing and social care, for example. As an MP, he says, ‘whether it's because people know my medical background or whether it's because there are a lot of health-related problems that come through I've had a number of incidences of constituency case work from people about their medical problems’.
The similarity, he says, tells us something about the nature of modern general practice: ‘It's a one-stop shop for any problems. Which I think is one of the problems facing general practice.’
The MP, who served as a councillor for Prestatyn on Denbighshire County Council, says there are questions and challenges over the government’s plans to provide a seven-day service for every patient in England. ‘There is a huge demand for GP appointments and in the week it is outstripping supply and the challenge will be having enough GPs to provide a service. I think in the short term, even if there are appointments and people are more aware of appointments at the weekend, there is still going to be a big challenge in terms of manpower.’
There is, he adds, ‘a debate as to whether there will be that much demand for Saturday and Sunday appointments over and above emergencies’. ‘If the availability of appointments on Sunday was well promoted, undoubtedly it would be taken up. But it's also true that most of those going to the GP are off work or retired, so weekdays are perfectly appropriate.’
The MP, born in 1980, lists Margaret Thatcher and former health secretary Ken Clarke as political heroes. He acknowledges that representing a Welsh seat does ‘confuse’ his involvement in policy debate in the UK parliament. But his experience working for both services, he says, gives him the experience to comment, and the closeness to England of his constituency means there are many cross-border issues.
He also argues that the Labour Welsh government should be held to account by MPs here as well as by the opposition in Cardiff. ‘People in my area feel they deserve services of an equal standard to anywhere else in the UK, and devolution allows us to compare the outcomes of slightly different NHS systems,' he says. ‘Where there are deficiencies in one those need to be highlighted.'