Viewpoint: How being part of a professional network stopped me leaving general practice

Five years ago Dr Mark Spencer felt drained and despondent and was ready to quit. He explains how co-founding NHS Collaborate - a supportive network of leaders in primary care - helped him become re-energised and positive about the future of general practice.

I’ve been a GP for nearly 30 years and passionately believe it is the best job in the world. More than that, I believe primary care is where the most talented and ambitious doctors of the future will want to work.

Hold on, you’re probably thinking, what about the untold pressures on the system, the undeniable stresses and strains on general practice, and the fact that so many of us are downright exhausted? Not to mention the rampant media negativity that achieves little except to send a few more already demoralised GPs running for the hills.

I get all of that because that’s exactly how I felt five years ago. Four of our six GP partners had retired in quick succession and we were struggling to recruit. Managing the extra workload, as well as dealing with rising numbers of increasingly complex patients, left me feeling drained and despondent and I lost all hope that things were ever going to get better.

The importance of listening

So, what changed? Perhaps surprisingly, it was the art of listening that saved me. Like most GPs, I thought I was pretty good at listening - after all, it’s what we’re trained to do. But this was very different.

In my former role as co-chair of NHS Alliance, I was given the opportunity, with a handful of others, to take part in a full-day session on generative listening. Throughout the course of the day I learnt to listen to others with a depth of empathy and understanding that I had never experienced before. In turn, I felt safe to share my own thoughts, worries and hopes for the future, open and honestly, without fear of judgment or shame.

The simple act of listening, and being listened to, connected me to the other people in that room on a deeper and more meaningful level than I had ever experienced before in my professional life. Knowing that there were others on this journey with me, struggling with similar issues but determined to make it through, brought me a real sense of comfort. For the first time in a long time, I felt hopeful about the future.

A community of leaders

All of us who attended that day knew we had been part of something very special, and wanted it to continue. We met again, had more conversations, and out of those conversations grew what we now know as NHS Collaborate: a supportive community of leaders across primary care.

Defining NHS Collaborate is not without challenge. A community that is underpinned by a methodology that is simple but not simplistic, it brings together leaders from wide primary care – GPs, practice managers, nurses, pharmacists and many more – to connect with each other as people, rather than professionals. With relationship building at its heart, it is a fantastic source of support for those who want to make a difference, be brave and take risks, but who may be lacking the confidence or courage to do so.

Over the last three years, the Collaborate community has grown from a handful of leaders to a network of many hundreds across the country.

During that time, we’ve brought people together in unusual, creative spaces that instantly uplift and inspire. We’ve used theatre, music and art to push leaders outside the boundaries of what they thought possible. And we’ve learnt that connecting regularly and informally via WhatsApp makes our bonds even stronger.

Simply by being connected, we are helping to shape a brand new vision for the future of primary care - a future filled with positivity and hope.

Life changing

For me, being part of Collaborate has been truly life changing. I’ve rediscovered my passion for general practice, and the amazing opportunities we have within primary care to transform the health of our communities. Five years ago I was ready to quit. Now I couldn’t be more excited to see what the future will bring. And from the hundreds of conversations I’ve had in a Collaborate setting, I know I’m not alone.

This is a community generating an immense amount of hope, strength and support for those working in general practice, and I firmly believe it should be an integral part of every GP retention programme in the country. NHS Collaborate is the future of primary care and I couldn’t be prouder to be part of it.

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