When they enter medical school, most students don’t plan on becoming a GP (nine out of ten according to the BMA). Even if you’re part of that majority, you’re very likely to get experience of general practice through placements, ranging from a few hours to several weeks over the course of your studies.
So what can you expect from your exposure to GP work as an ‘insider’?
Discover the excitement of the unknown
When an unfamiliar patient steps through the door of a GP’s surgery, the doctor has no idea what medical issues they’ll be faced with. For many, this role as the first point of contact between the community and the wider healthcare service makes the job rewarding.
For some, the uncertainty of what’s coming next can be an exciting challenge. Admittedly, for others, the mix of medical issues that are presented can become a little predictable.
As a student on a GP placement, you’re also dealing with an unfamiliar community in, probably, an unfamiliar location. There will be no shortage of unknowns to keep your attention, at least at the start.
You’ll be out of your comfort zone
Working in a GP clinic may be a little unusual for you, but it’s when you visit patients at home that you’re truly outside your comfort zone. You should get opportunities to do this as part of a GP placement.
Seeing someone in their home, rather than in a surgery or hospital, can put a different perspective on a consultation. You’re surrounded by the evidence of their day-to-day life, including the people they live with, which can challenge the emotions, particularly when talking about life and death issues.
Another aspect of seeing someone in their home is that your only resources are those you take with you or those already there. You don’t have the back up of a surgery or other staff who can be called in.
Enjoy the independence
The lifestyle is something that many students say they enjoy about GP placements. You may get your own office, you have more choices, and on longer placements, you can build a relationship with patients. This continuity and freedom is what makes general practice attractive to many.
You should also get an insight into the flexibility of running what is effectively a small business, including being your own boss.
Expect the unexpected
There’s a good chance that while you’re taking the role of a GP, you’ll encounter situations that require tact and patience, as much as your medical training.
Not every person coming in has a genuine health issue, even if they think they have. People misread their own symptoms and are alarmed by their own self-diagnosis. They may need persuading that, for example, a sudden increase in static electrical discharges around their home is nothing to do with their health and is all down to the installation of new carpets.
It’s not unknown for patients to attempt to persuade their doctor to adopt particular political or religious views. Some will give gifts to express their thanks for the medical attention received.
Be ready to make a positive contribution
Many GPs appreciate that accepting students in placement is mutually beneficial. You get to experience general practice while they get a chance to spend time with someone with new ideas and access to the latest knowledge being shared in universities.
Good doctors value lifelong learning and many appreciate the perspectives brought into their practice by student doctors, like you.
Prepare to be inspired
Many students leave their general practice placement with new-found respect for the work of GPs, even if they have no intention of taking that route for themselves.
Working inside a GP clinic exposes the challenges of doing a good job when resources, including time, are often short. It’s frontline medicine, delivered by people who care deeply for the community in which they live.
You’ll come away with a decision
If you haven’t already decided whether to go into general practice, chances are that your decision will be heavily influenced by your placement.
That’s because your first-hand experience will very likely expose whether you’re suited to becoming a GP. For many students, it lacks the excitement of a busy hospital or A&E, and the independence doesn’t compensate for the administrative overhead of running a practice.
The BMA says that one in ten new medical students aspire to be a GP, but that number more than doubles by graduation. Whatever your thoughts are now, the best way to go into your GP placement is with enthusiasm, a hunger to learn and an expectation of it being a rewarding experience.