Swapping Surgeries: Doctors Who Are Also MPs

Nicky Broyd

Disclosures

October 16, 2018

If you've ever fancied a different type of surgery perhaps it’s time to consider becoming an MP.

People want more doctors to become MPs. In a YouGov survey in 2014, 61% of those questioned wanted more doctors in Parliament. The polling company believed the results were consistent with voters wanting more of the people they felt they could trust.

Currently, out of a total of 650 members of Parliament, there are only 9 MPs who are also doctors of medicine.  

Medscape UK spoke with two of them, and another healthcare professional, a clinical psychologist.

Dr Caroline Johnson is Conservative MP for Sleaford and North Hykeham. She is a paediatrician and was elected to parliament in a by-election in December 2016.

Dr Paul Williams MP is Labour member for Stockton South and is a GP who has also worked in public and international health. He was elected to parliament in June 2017.

Dr Lisa Cameron MP is the SNP member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow. She is a consultant clinical psychologist and began her parliamentary career in May 2015.

Not only do they represent their constituents but each year they also complete enough hours to maintain their licence to practise. On top of that all three have children and so also work at maintaining a family life.

Two would recommend politics to other health professionals, one says it's still too early to tell.

Here's what they shared with Medscape UK:

Why do you still practise?

   

Dr Caroline Johnson MP

Dr Caroline Johnson: I think it is important for my work as an MP that I remain in touch with the realities of working on the frontline of the NHS, particularly when it comes to scrutinising health-related policies. I do just over 300 hours a year in order to maintain my registration as a consultant. 

 

 

   

Dr Paul Williams MP

Dr Paul Williams: I do a couple of mornings a month as a GP and I do an occasional shift in an urgent care centre. It's about the number of hours I do but it's to do with being appraised as well. So I do my continuing professional development [CPD]. I do maybe 150 hours a year working as a doctor, I do another 50 hours CPD and then I get an annual appraisal.

It does a couple of things. It keeps me grounded in what the health service is really like. It helps me get a different insight into what people's lives are like. I guess it gives me a bit of credibility when I’m talking about health things in Parliament.

   

Dr Lisa Cameron MP

Dr Lisa Cameron: I think it helps … when I'm on the health select committee, to have an understanding of how services work on the ground.

I don't think it is a good idea for politicians to lose contact with frontline services, so it’s a good way for me to maintain my registration whilst being able to have an understanding of how services actually operate. Then I think that gives you a more informed understanding of which policies need to be implemented.

In which job would you say you help people more?

Dr Caroline Johnson: Both jobs involve helping people, but in different ways. Being a paediatrician means that I help individuals and families in a very immediate way, working in the moment to save lives and make children better – it is a role in which you can help people in a very obvious and specific way. Being an MP does involve helping people through casework, but also involves making wider changes that may help huge numbers of people over time but in a far less immediate sense. It is often a less direct way of helping, but I believe both are very important.

Dr Paul Williams: At the moment the time in my life when I've made the biggest impact is [when] I spent nearly 5 years working on the Uganda-Congo border running health care programmes and so I probably made a much larger impact on people's lives then. But I'm still learning politics. I’ve only been doing the role for 15 months.

I can't say that I have done anything that my presence itself has made that magnitude of difference in politics but of course politics has the potential to do much more. And so I hope if we were having this conversation looking back over time in politics, maybe in 10 or 15 years’ time, I would have said I’d had a greater impact in politics.

Dr Lisa Cameron: I think it's a combination. So when you're working clinically you help people, it's a direct relationship, you help people, and you're pleased by that. They're happy in the main and you're able to help them and you get that kind of sense of fulfilment straightaway. In politics you can help a lot of people but it can sometimes take a long time for anything to get into legislation, so it's not the same type of helping relationship.

When you became an MP did you have any transferable skills?

Dr Caroline Jackson: A huge part of the job of being a paediatrician involves communication – you need to listen to people, explain sometimes very esoteric medical terminology clearly, and sometimes, sadly, be there for people when their child is not going to get better. These skills have been a big help to me as an MP, as I deal with people from all walks of life in my constituency as well as a wide range of people in Westminster. My experience as a doctor has also given me a strong work ethic, which is very helpful working long hours as an MP, and my knowledge of our health system has been very useful when scrutinising health policies and speaking in the House about health issues.

Dr Paul Willliams: I am trained to listen. The greatest skill a GP has is probably their communication skills. And that's probably something that's lacking a little in politics. A lot of people feel that politicians don't listen to them. So I'd like to think that being a good listener is transferable.

Certainly being able to process large amounts of information. The amount of stuff coming into me every day - I probably have about 20 different approaches an hour from different directions – things coming in to me on social media, by email, by letter, by phone call, by text.

And that perhaps reminds me of my time as a junior doctor when there's loads and loads of information and you have to be able to organise and process it, and work out what the important bits are.

Dr Lisa Cameron:  So psychology definitely helps you in Parliament.

Actually, I worked in forensic psychology, so I did a lot of assessments of sociopaths and psychopaths for the Prison Service, and there's definitely an overlap into politics in some of those traits.

(We asked if she was talking about her fellow MPs. She said she was.)

Is there something you have achieved in Parliament that you are especially proud of?

Dr Caroline Johnson: During my time as an MP I have enjoyed being co-chair of the APPG for Children Who Need Palliative Care, and we have recently completed an inquiry into the issue of choice in care for children with life-limiting conditions. I am hugely proud of the report we have produced, which will be published in the very near future, and we have made some suggestions that I think will improve things for these young people and their families.

Dr Paul Williams: Yes, I talked about something that has led much of my career as a doctor - my desire to try and reduce health inequalities - and that's been a kind of thread that's taken me through my career. I've always chosen to be a GP in areas of towns with the greatest need and I spent several years working with refugees and asylum seekers. That’s one of the reasons why I want to be an MP because I know that the issues that impact on health inequalities often extend way beyond what the health service can do.

Dr Lisa Cameron: Quite a lot of things. I chair the Disability All-Party Group. I'm proud that I was re-elected to do that for the third year. And I think working for the potential and opportunities for people with disabilities is one of the things that I'm extremely proud to continue to do.

I worked with the Speaker on the Disability Internship Scheme. Parliament has an internship scheme …  I said disability inclusion at Westminster is really poor, shouldn’t we have some places for interns who have disabilities because they're not coming through the system? And he agreed with me and we've started that internship scheme and so we took our first three interns [with disabilities] in September for 10 months. And they'll be placed with a Labour MP, a Conservative MP, and an SNP MP this year. Then we're going to have three interns with disabilities every year. I'm hoping that this has made a difference and I'm very proud of it.

Would you recommend politics to other health professionals? 

Dr Caroline Johnson: Absolutely. I am a strong believer that Parliament works better when it contains a wide range of people who have professional experience in different areas – medicine, law, business, charities, and so on. Having a background in medicine helps me to be a more effective MP, and having more MPs who are health professionals can only make our Parliament better.  

Dr Paul Williams: I think it's too early for me to tell. It's very easy to be busy as a politician but perhaps a little harder to be effective and so it's too early for me to tell whether or not I'd recommend it.

It still feels like something that I'm learning but certainly I love getting up and going to work every day. I’ve learned thousands of new things about the community that I live in and made fantastic relationships in London with people from across the political spectrum who I've learned from, and occasionally I hope I’ve managed to influence them.

Dr Lisa Cameron: Yes, definitely. We need to have people who have an understanding of the health service and how to support it moving forward, making decisions on the health service. Nothing annoys me more than politicians sitting around a table talking about what the health service needs, suggesting at times that it should be privatised etc., and they've never worked in it, they don't understand the real stresses.

I want the people who are making decisions on something as important as our NHS to be people who have experience of it, who value it, and who understand it.

Finally, how to you find the time to do both jobs? 

Dr Caroline Johnson: With difficulty! Like any working parent, balancing work commitments and family life is something that I find challenging, but I do my very best to ensure that I am present and engaged with my children as much as possible. I wouldn’t be able to do that without the help and support from my husband and the children’s grandparents, and I am hugely grateful to them for everything that they do.

Dr Paul Williams: It’s always a balance. There are other things that I am as well. I'm a father. I’ve got two small kids. I'm a triathlete, so I try and train every day as well. It's always about compromise and about being well organised.

The medical bit is two mornings a month. That's not a huge amount of time. The politics takes up far, far, more time because it's almost a job description with no boundaries. It extends into the evenings and the weekends.

Dr Lisa Cameron: Working for the NHS is perfect training because you never have enough time in the day when you work in the NHS to do everything you want to do for patients. You're always stretching yourself and doing a bit more and trying to help another person that day. And so I think it’s training that I've had through the NHS that enables me to do as much as I can.

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