How political should a doctor be?

Doctors have been more visible on the UK’s political stage over the past year than ever before. We have all regularly tuned in to broadcasts with Chris Whitty and Jonathan Van Tam in the full glare of the television spotlight. News media carried endless reports of challenging conversations taking place behind closed doors. Meanwhile, various members of SAGE have popped up across a whole range of topical discussion programmes. Senior healthcare leaders have played an essential role in addressing the pandemic. But, as we slowly return to normality, just how political should a doctor be?

What do we mean by “political”?

When we think of politics, it’s easy to think of the big parliamentary parties. They are all about to enter the annual pantomime phase of their conference season. In an ideal world, this would be where their various members gather together to debate the big issues of the day, reach a consensus and define policies for the way ahead. Sadly, these meetings have typically become major stage-managed events. Speakers aim to deliver headline-grabbing soundbites which are more for the general public than discussion with the audience in the hall. They’ve become forums for publicity rather than debate. In keeping with the general population, involvement in such events is probably only for those doctors who feel strong allegiance to one of these parties.

But let’s consider “politics” in the broader sense. Consider it as the set of activities associated with decision making where individuals or groups have different interests. These decisions relate to defining priorities, timelines, ways of working, distribution of resources and much, much more. In that sense, we all have political interests.

Political hot topics for doctors

Scanning current general news media reveals a broad range of topics affecting doctors. Digging into the medical press then brings these issues into sharper focus. There are numerous decisions to be made. Inevitably, some are more emotive or tangible than others.

Take, for example, the case of tobacco giant Philip Morris International who are currently trying to buy a pharmaceutical company who make inhalers for £1.1bn. Is it ok that we could have a huge organisation making massive profits from both selling the products which inflict harm and treatments for the resulting disease? is it ok that the NHS will end up paying a tobacco company for treatment. Many readers will hope our Government intervene in some way. Yet this may feel like an issue that is a bit distant from your daily practice. It’s an emotive situation, but for high-level decision makers to deal with.

Potentially much closer to home is fact that the BMA has recently adopted a neutral stance to assisted dying. It’s a big shift in position and one that’s been made to reflect the differing opinions of its members. Legislative change here could have a huge impact for you, your patients and their carers. Alternatively, you may feel the current status quo is unacceptable. So, you may want to make sure your voice is heard in that debate.

Then, there’s our challenge of finding a way out of the pandemic to a new normal. How will we re-organise our systems and make good use of the recent increase in funding? How will healthcare and social-care actually integrate? Who will make these decisions? This requires decisions at every level, from the top of Government to the teams you work with. So who will make them? How can you realistically become involved in shaping the future?

Getting involved

The start point is to be well informed, then stay informed and up to date. Next, it’s about recognising how and where you can make a difference.

In simple terms, our NHS and social care systems are made up of groups of people who serve groups of people. Each of these groups are made up of individuals. Decision makers need to hear opinions and ideas from the individuals involved and people affected. So, we all need to ensure our voices are heard in the right way at the right time by the right people. You may not get your own way, but at least you will have tried. Better that than being a passive passenger, swept along and at risk of finding yourself adrift. At the end of the day, that’s politics.

What are you doing to ensure you are informed and that you voice is heard?

Stephen McGuire – Managing Director