GP Dr Nagendra Sarmah interview: A lifetime's contribution to the NHS

Retired GP Dr Nagendra Sarmah features in a book about the contribution of the Asian community to the NHS

How did you get involved in a government-commissioned book about the NHS?

A GP colleague recommended me to the Runnymede Trust, a racial equality think tank, which was doing research on the contribution of the Asian community to the NHS, with a view to publishing a book.

This had been commissioned by the then Labour government. The trust had published a book about the contribution of the African-Caribbean community to the NHS, Many Rivers to Cross, in 2006.

I was interviewed by a trust researcher and the book, Nurturing the Nation – the Asian Contribution to the NHS since 1948, was written by Dr Debbie Weekes-Bernard, head of research at the Runnymede Trust.

Unfortunately, the coalition government did not want to publish it because of cutbacks, but I lobbied the health secretary and a few other MPs, and it agreed to go ahead.

What is the book about and when was it launched?

The book shines a light on the important contribution made to the NHS by its Asian employees, at a time when there is an increasingly negative policy focus on matters of racism, migration and health.

It looks at the lives and careers of Asian employees at all levels of the NHS, focusing on 40 NHS workers who came to work and to achieve higher qualifications in the UK, from various parts of the world. I am the only doctor who appeared in three sections of the book.

The launch took place at the Palace of Westminster in October 2013, but was fairly low-key and unfortunately, no health ministers were present.

My constituency MP, Mark Hunter, attended the launch.

When did you first come to the UK as a doctor?

I was born in Assam, north-east India, and completed medical training at Assam Medical College.
I came to the UK in 1965 to obtain postgraduate training in obstetrics & gynaecology. I got my first job as an SHO in Nantwich, Cheshire, in a small district hospital, where I worked 120-hour weeks.

After this, I worked at the University Hospital of South Manchester in Withington, to finish my surgical training, then moved to a job in obstetrics at Wythenshawe Hospital.

After working for two years as a junior doctor, I applied for registrar jobs but in the late 1960s, doctors from overseas found it difficult to obtain registrar posts, particularly in this field.

I eventually took up my first registrar post in Bolton District General Hospital, moving to Liverpool after two years. But as there was no married accommodation at the hospital and my wife and I now had two young children, I decided to switch to general practice.

How did you make the move into general practice?

I was appointed to a singlehanded practice with a list of 3,300 patients, in Chorlton-cum-Hardy, south Manchester, by the Manchester Family Practitioner Committee.

There were 52 applicants for the job, of whom eight were shortlisted, so this was a big achievement for an Asian doctor at that time.

As an Asian GP in this suburb of Manchester, I had to work very hard to build up my practice. When I first joined, about 100 patients left because I was the only Asian singlehanded GP in Chorlton; my predecessor was English and had been there for 25 years.

Patients did not want to go to Asian doctors here at the time and in the 1970s, there was bad publicity about South Asian doctors from some of the newspapers.

Back then, being a singlehanded doctor meant you were responsible for your patients 365 days a year, even Christmas and bank holidays. You were never off duty, and the complaint levels against Asian doctors were very high.

I had to work hard to be accepted by my patients (I never saw my two little girls getting up and by the time I finished work, they’d be in bed).

Fortunately, the health authority was pleased with my work and asked me to take on another GP’s practice. I was also elected to the LMC and nominated as a representative of the Withington Hospital executive board to Manchester Medical School. I was the only Asian GP to be appointed to this board.
In 1985, I won a Silver Award from the local CHC, for good service.

When did you retire?

I had a heart bypass in the mid-1990s and I retired from general practice in 2001. I miss my patients and many were sad to see me go. However, I am now a patient panel member of Stockport CCG and a core group member for Stockport Healthwatch.

  • Dr Sarmah is a retired GP from Manchester. Download ‘Nurturing the Nation’ free of charge at: nurturingthenation.org.uk

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