Once I met my GP at a party. I was sitting bang opposite, trying desperately to place her, asking insistent questions such as: “Were you a member of the Battersea Labour party in ’84 through ’92?” and: “Do you use that dry cleaner on Lavender Hill?” Finally, in desperation: “Are you famous?”
When I figured it out, I realised that there is probably a GP discretion protocol, where they don’t recognise you, and you don’t recognise them. Over decades, collectively, they have tested out all the other social alternatives for the doctor-patient meet’n’chat – “Hi! Haven’t seen you since your gallstones, how’s that working out?”; “You were right! I hadn’t gone deaf in one ear, I was just depressed” – and this is just the way it has to be.
GPs are under almost constant criticism: for the hiatus in face-to-face appointments, for their convoluted and overstretched systems, for staff shortages and, lately, an issue with blood tests. It is not so much pointless as peculiarly ineffective to dissent on facts: to point out that many of these problems are actually policy decisions made many echelons above the surgery, related mainly to money and partly to Brexit.
Something about the raging anecdotalist – “I couldn’t get an appointment for three weeks and then they misdiagnosed my aneurysm over the phone” – always seems to grab the attention. And it’s hard to pull the focus back to the day-to-day excellence because, unless you have a health emergency, your GP’s acts of kindness and wisdom are usually quite tiny.
It will be the doctor who knew not to say hello to you at a party. The receptionist at my surgery (I know I’m fortunate but, again, funding …) who always, without fail, over 20 years, finds an appointment that day, as long as I call at 8am and not one minute after. The way they will always see a kid with a stomach ache face to face, even in the middle of a pandemic, even if they can see from the records that that kid is no stranger to stomach ache.
I absolutely love my GP, and say that from a position of perfect health. You should have heard me praise her when I got an allergy on my eyelids. I promise, though, never to tell her that at a party.
Zoe Williams is a Guardian columnist