Dr Jenny Stephenson Interview: The GP historian

Sheffield GP Dr Jenny Stephenson has compiled a history of her practice.

I have collected the stories and memories of my patients, colleagues and staff, building them into a unique history book.

It details the fascinating timeline from when the surgery, Walkley House Medical Centre, in Walkley, Sheffield, was built in 1870, up to the present time.

Walkley House and its branch surgery in Stannington, a village three miles away, has always been home to a medical household, and was used as both residence and work base from when it was built. The first doctors worked separately, but the current practice was founded in 1930.

I have been at the practice since 1985 and became aware that I am seeing history repeat itself in the problems facing the community and the doctors.

Threats of epidemics, embracing new treatments, adapting to NHS reorganisations, are just a few of those problems.

I was intrigued as to who our founder doctors were and how they coped with these challenges. I was also very keen that in future, we do not lose the high-quality personal care exemplified by our predecessors.

Gathering memories

I spent about four years gathering letters and written memories from patients, after putting up posters in the surgeries and publishing a notice in the local newspaper.

I was very fortunate - around that time, the grandson of Dr Denis Connolly, the founder doctor, happened to be bringing his son to take a look at Sheffield University, and they also came to see Walkley House.

He saw my notice asking for historical information and relayed the message to his father, John Connolly, the founder doctor's son.

John generously shared his memories and photographs with me, which were very valuable in getting the book started.

This summer I took a four-week sabbatical to put the book together, which was not difficult as I had written and illustrated sections as I went along. Many of the photos and drawings are mine, but I am also very grateful to Stannington Library and local history societies for information and photos of the old village.

My book shows how the practice adapted to, and survived, cholera, influenza, smallpox, two World Wars, the new NHS, industrial unrest, a flood and a disaster, among others.

I based the storyline on many different reflections and accounts from patients and others over the decades, each adding local depth to the background of the social, political and medical changes of the time.

Adapting to change

Walkley House has always been in the hands of doctors. Those early doctors practised on their own, but soon joined with other local clinicians to offer a wider, more efficient service. They embraced new treatments, such as antibiotics, and adapted to the changes at the time.

Our current GPs began work there in the 1980s and 1990s and have remained, working with many of the same staff, also adapting to the changing medical scene.

I thoroughly enjoyed interviewing people and learning about Sheffield's history from the archives and from local historians.

I soon realised it was important to reconcile all of the information I collected, as an accountant does with a balance sheet, so dates and details are consistent with each other.

As a team, we each felt proud to be part of Walkley House and Stannington Medical Centres, and it was a unique opportunity for us and our patients to celebrate our work together. Everyone has contributed enthusiastically and creatively.

Providing services

Most practices are small independent businesses, which have had to be flexible to survive. Much has changed since the NHS Act 1948, under which practices have worked to provide primary care services to patients.

GPs are now faced with the challenge of improving the care of the ageing population, with its increasingly complicated needs, so they work in different ways, sharing the skills of GP colleagues, nursing teams, hospital specialists and the voluntary sector.

Being a GP is a most rewarding career. However, there are national difficulties in recruitment, as the number of early retirements increases, and a need for investment in practices if we are to achieve the government's vision of increased care closer to home.

As the history book shows, the personal relationship that patients have with their GP and their practice is much valued, bringing about high-quality care in a cost-efficient manner. However, as the early doctors found, general practice does need to adapt to survive.

  • Dr Stephenson's book costs £15.20 inc p&p; the proceeds are going to Diabetes UK, the Alzheimer's Society and Stannington Library. To order a copy, write to her at Stannington Medical Centre, Uppergate Road, Stannington, Sheffield S6 6BX

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