The GP leader of the Future: who will they be, and what will they need?

On 16 April, the University of Birmingham Centre for Health and Social Care Leadership held the second in a series of lectures exploring leadership in the NHS. We were delighted to welcome back Professor Helen Stokes-Lampard who is currently on secondment from her University of Birmingham responsibilities to lead the UK’s GPs as the Chair of the Royal College of General Practitioners.

As the Chair of the largest medical Royal College in the country, Helen has a vital role in shaping policy, influencing opinion and representing the voice of general practice on a national and international stage. So there are few people better placed to speculate on what will be needed from GP leaders of the future.

The lecture started with an opportunity for the audience to voice their ideas about the challenges faced by general practice in the future. Changing workforce, different models of care and the impact of technology were amongst the issues raised - and then Helen took to the stage to discuss these challenges and more. As Helen set the scene and summarised the wide-ranging socio-political changes that have impacted on general practice and the wider health and social care system over recent years, she exemplified some of the vital skills and attributes required to be a leader in the NHS.

There is no doubt that the NHS is a complex system and one that changes at a pace that is difficult to keep up with. Helen deftly summarised and communicated this complicated topic and reminded the audience about the very personal nature of healthcare. Whilst demonstrating how she maintains a broad oversight of the whole system, Helen highlighted the importance of maintaining a focus on individual patients and their communities. This is the balance that healthcare leaders need to achieve. It would be all too easy to lose focus on individuals when submerged in policy and politics; and equally ineffective to ignore the wider system when advocating for individuals.

When thinking about the future, Helen suggested we ‘start with the patient’ and always ask ourselves: what do patients want, and what do they need? Both wants and needs should be considered, but the difference is important. Whilst policy makers may be influenced by what people want, GPs are in an ideal position to consider what is needed; especially for those members of society whose needs are greatest but struggle to get their voices heard.

The future for general practice will inevitably be different from where we are now, and Helen made this point very clearly. Changes in the way we work and the structure of primary care may challenge continuity of care; a vital facet of general practice. But whilst we will endeavour to maintain relational continuity for those patients who need it the most, we can use technology and teams to build wider systems of care and support that safeguard the core principles that underpin general practice despite the challenges we face.

General practice, and indeed healthcare in general, is going to need strong leadership in the future as the world becomes more challenging and complex. Helen suggested that tomorrow’s leaders will need to be authentic, caring, wise, values-driven, emotionally intelligent, self-aware, courageous and collaborative. It could be argued that these are important attributes for all doctors, or maybe even all humans, but what will generate good leaders is the time, space and encouragement to explore their potential within the NHS.

Helen pointed out that the GPs and other healthcare leaders of tomorrow will need to have good role models, support and mentoring. They need to work in an environment where they have the opportunity to ‘give it a go’, to make mistakes and to grow.

General practitioners are skilled at balancing individual and system level needs, taking a holistic view of problems and making decisions. These are the skills that are required in future NHS leaders. Helen demonstrates and exemplifies the importance of confident and positive leadership in our profession and will inspire leaders for many years to come. As the structure of primary care changes, we need to design in the necessary conditions that will allow our leaders of the future to develop and prosper to ensure healthcare has great clinical leaders for future generations.

Dr Sam Finnikin, academic GP at the University of Birmingham @sfinnikin