Tuesday, 16 July 2019

Looking after patients was privilege, says retiring GP

Looking after patients was privilege, says retiring GP

A DOCTOR who has served Goring and Woodcote for three decades is to retire.

Stephen Richards, who joined the villages’ joint medical practices as a GP in the summer of 1989, will work his final shift on Monday.

The 62-year-old, who lives with his wife Billie in Elmhurst Road, Goring, has also held several leadership roles, including a period as chief clinical officer for Oxfordshire between 2011 and 2014.

He took part in negotiations to save Townlands Hospital in Henley from closure in 2005 and later to keep its beds under a £10million redevelopment with provision made at the neighbouring Chilterns Court Care Centre.

Dr Richards, who will still work part-time advising NHS managers after completing a coaching course at the Henley Business School, says serving the villages has been his greatest pleasure.

He says many aspects of the job have changed but he is confident his successors will thrive.

Dr Richards grew up in Oxford and always wanted to work in medicine as his father Donald was a GP and his older siblings, Imogen and Michael, also followed suit.

His father, who won the Ladies’ Challenge Plate at Henley Royal Regatta as part of a Radley College men’s eight in 1938, practised from the family home and his son recalls answering phone calls as a child.

Dr Richards studied medicine at Selwyn College, Cambridge, then finished his clinical training at St Bart’s Hospital in London in 1982.

He met his wife, a nurse who is now the practices’ healthcare assistant, during GP training at the Royal Berkshire Hospital in Reading. They married in 1989 after he had finished a two-year placement in rural South Africa.

Dr Richards said: “That was invaluable for the rest of my career because I wasn’t frightened of anything afterwards. I was meant to be a paediatrician but ended up doing everything because there weren’t enough doctors. It was the most phenomenal medical experience one could have.

“I was delivering babies by Caesarian section, administering anaesthetic, doing orthopaedic surgery and overseeing a tuberculosis ward with 150 patients.”

For the surgeries’ job, the couple were both interviewed in a “trial by dinner party” as it was then believed that doctors should have a “reliable spouse” to answer calls and advise patients.

Dr Richards took over from Dr Ian Simpson, joining Dr Tony Wilson at the practice in Folly Orchard Road, Woodcote, and Drs Gordon Robertson and Rhys Hamilton at the sister practice in Red Cross Road, Goring.

Medical records were initially kept on A5 cards stuffed in envelopes but in 1990 each surgery bought a computer with power less than 1,000 times that of a modern smartphone.

Dr Richards said: “I’d wanted to be a GP by the seaside and sail in my spare time but I was pressured to accept an opportunity here and I’m incredibly glad that I did as it has been a real privilege.”

He was appointed lead prescribing GP for Oxfordshire in 2000, then accepted other senior roles in which he “ensured the voice of the patient was spoken directly by doctors to the managers”.  He was elected chief clinical officer by 92 per cent of Oxfordshire’s GPs and soon afterwards won an NHS Alliance award for uniting Oxfordshire’s six GP networks under a single body.

Dr Richards said: “I was fortunate to occupy that position although I don’t think many doctors had an interest in managing the whole system. Making change is like trying to shift an oil tanker but you must always remember you’re here for the patients.

“I’m sure others involved in the Townlands discussions would argue it was like a cross between herding cats and driving a stone up a steep hill but the outcome is there for all to see. Having used the outpatient services myself, I know they are excellent.”

He says GPs now spend more time helping patients manage long-term conditions such as diabetes, lung disease or heart failure as life expectancies increase.

They also must reassure patients who have searched for their symptoms online and fear their illness is more serious than in reality.

In future, he says, surgeries will work more closely with nursing and mental health teams, pharmacists and carers in so-called “primary care networks”.

The NHS will increasingly analyse patients’ data to identify those at risk of declining health before they end up in hospital.

Dr Richards said: “We’re obliged to do much more than 30 years ago as the first port of call in the system. The vast majority of overall care first goes through a GP and there’s massive pressure to meet demand while maintaining quality. Many conditions are treatable where 30 years ago we were putting our fingers in the dam.

“A more personalised model is emerging and we’re bound to see more changes in the next decade than in the past three. Many patients now Google their symptoms, which is a mixed blessing as it doesn’t give a balanced perspective. A headache is a brain tumour or a simple mole is a melanoma until the GP is consulted.

“Some people are sad that general practice has changed but without that, life as a Dr Finlay-type GP would have become unsustainable and not in patients’ best interests. Primary care networks can deliver better care even if it’s different.

“My father might reflect on what has been lost but he would have to have changed to survive. Ninety per cent of the medicines we use daily didn’t exist in his day and smoking was thought to have some health benefits!”

Dr Richards opted to retire as 30 years is a “good number” but his sons Tim and James, who attended the Oratory Preparatory School in Woodcote and are also former Henley Royal Regatta winners, are following in his footsteps while daughter Alice is a graphic designer.

His colleagues and patients will bid him farewell at a tea party at Woodcote village hall at 3.30pm next Saturday (June 15), which is open to all.

Dr Richards said: “I recently bumped into a lady who remembered me doing a six-week check on her baby who is now 30, which brings it home. 

“It has been a pleasure to work in such a close-knit community but I’m looking forward to doing more fly fishing and having more headspace and flexibility in my week.

“I’m delighted that my boys have become doctors as it’s a great profession whatever the general state of morale.

“ It gives you so many opportunities to help people, whether you become a GP or follow a different path.”

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