Professor Mayur Lakhani: Important to recognise role of South Asian doctors as NHS turns 70

The RCGP is hosting an exhibition on doctors from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka who came to the UK between 1940 and 1980 and helped shape the modern NHS. Writing for GPonline, RCGP president Professor Mayur Lakhani says it's time their story was told.

I am absolutely delighted that the RCGP is hosting this important exhibition - it tells a story that has never been told before and one that certainly needs telling. The college is proud to be involved, but it is not just a story of general practice - it is a story about the entire NHS, as we celebrate its 70thanniversary, and one of importance to society as a whole.

The long and short of it is that the NHS, particularly general practice, would not be what it is today - treasured, essential and keeping our patients safe - without the hard work and dedication of doctors from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka who came to Great Britain after the war and worked as GPs. Some of whom, along with many of their decendents, are still practising today.

They were at the heart of communities, and it is humbling to hear how even though South Asian doctors often faced professional and societal discrimination, the relationships they forged with patients were strong and real.

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They led in tackling health inequalities, as they often found work in poor, industrial areas where patient demand was high, but GP recruitment was difficult. They truly worked in the 'deep end' and were the embodiment of the values and the raison d’etre of the NHS. Not only that, they were at the forefront of innovation and were leaders in their own right making many important strategic contributions to the NHS such as GP out-of-hours co-operatives.

It is also a time for reflection. Migrants have not been treated with the equality we now strive for and our society has not always got it right. The ‘Migrants Who Made the NHS’ exhibition and the book on which it is based by Julian M. Simpson makes clear the adversity than many South Asian doctors faced when beginning their career in medicine in Britain.

But we have made progress. And I am optimistic that even more progress can be made by learning from research like this.

Personal experience

Being involved in this exhibition, reading Julian’s book and listening to the accounts from many of the South Asian doctors featured, has been very personal to me. I write as the son of immigrants who could not speak English who went on to be elected the first Asian president of the RCGP. I was the first person to go to university from my family. Obviously, I have South Asian heritage, but it has also reminded me of an experience I had as a junior doctor.

In August 1983 as a house officer, I was caring for a patient nearing the end of her life, who said to me that an Indian doctor had brought her into this world, and now one was helping her to die. She thanked me. It was a powerful moment and it has stayed with me – I have an emotional investment in this exhibition, and learning lessons from the past to help shape our future.

I was incredibly honoured last night, not just to open the exhibition, but to award RCGP commendations to a number of GPs who feature in it: Dr K.S. Bhanumathi; Dr S.A.A. Gilani; Dr L.R.M Kamal; Dr Krishna Rao Korlipara; Dr Has Joshi, who served as Vice Chair of the RCGP; Dr Shiv Pande; and posthumously to Dr Sri Venugopal who sadly passed earlier this year.

Tremendous contribution

Their contributions to general practice, the wider NHS and patient care have been tremendous - but of course thousands of doctors from South Asia came during the period that the exhibition spans, and through our exhibition we hope to recognise them all.

Things are changing. Part of my role at the college is to oversee our new members ceremonies, and I never cease to be amazed at the diversity of our profession. It’s fantastic. The college wants every GP to succeed whatever their start in life, and to fulfil their potential. We care about your wellbeing.

And so as we approach the 70th anniversary of the NHS, I will be going round the country to talk to GPs to ask them 'what matters to you?' as part of my presidential listening exercise. My vision is to continue to create a college where every GP belongs, and where members are in the driving seat - you can get in touch by emailing: talktopresident@rcgp.org.uk

Please do take the chance to visit 30 Euston Square and learn more. Migrants Who Made the NHS will run until December.

Read more about the NHS at 70

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