I’m a GP based in East Anglia, and the father of two young children. Like many children in their early years, they’re beginning to take an interest in superheroes, and I’m frequently asked if the characters they see on TV are “the good guys”.
Children’s programmes are binary. There is good, there is bad. The good guys always win. The bad guys slink off, only to be back in the next episode. But then my eldest son recently asked me if I was a good guy.
“I’m not sure,” came my reply.
There was a time when society saw doctors as the “good guys”, kneeling at the bedside, brows furrowed, administering some form of potion to ease human suffering. This is a tableau as old as the profession, often repeated in literature, television or film. A.J. Cronin’s Dr Finlay is held as an example of the good doctor: compassionate, selfless, and always on-call. This is an ideal that perhaps never existed, or at least hasn’t for a long time. Nonetheless, the “good doctor” is the benchmark by which many of us are measured.
When I speak to many of my older patients, I get the impression that the position of doctor was once held in high esteem. His word (for it was almost always a man) was gospel. Followed to the letter, the patient would dutifully take “the medicine” or “the tablets”, asking no questions. Treatment was accepted in good faith. If a patient was dissatisfied with their treatment, they might never say. The doctor was always right, after all.
I’m not particularly comfortable with the paternalistic view of medicine. I’m not always right. I will happily admit to having been wrong in the past. But ask many doctors why they went into medicine, and the answer most commonly heard is “to help people”. I’m no exception. A trucker’s son from Peterborough and the grandson of a refugee, all I’ve ever wanted to do is a make a difference. I thought medicine would be a great way of contributing to society, easing suffering and saving lives. Surely, I reasoned to myself in my younger years, there is no nobler pursuit?
The difficulty is that the doctor as respected pillar of the community is no more. According to some, doctors lack vocation, don’t want to work weekends, and are a barrier to NHS reform. The portrayal of doctor as villain is now slowly permeating society.
Over my career, I’ve been sworn at and threatened with violence. I’ve had countless patients tell me I’m paid too much. People make assumptions about my social background. The culture of instant gratification results in demands to speak to the doctor, even if I might be in the middle of something much more important. In spite of being pilloried in the press, briefed against by people in power, shouted at and sworn at, we’re expected to push even harder on the job. Is it any wonder morale is at an all-time low?
Saving lives and changing lives is still a rewarding proposition. Despite the boo-hiss of the government and Jeremy Hunt in particular, there is still the cheer. But the cheers are harder to hear, and the boos and the hisses seem louder each day.