I was a consultant in genitourinary medicine until 2016, having been an NHS doctor for 16 years. Since then I have been working as a sex-education trainer and medical writer. I remained on the GMC register, but surrendered my licence to practise in 2017 as I was no longer seeing patients.
When my licence was restored by the GMC earlier this year, as also happened to thousands of other doctors in response to the pandemic, it was a decision I was anticipating because I still have lots of friends who are practising doctors and we had been talking about it for weeks.
I wanted to return to medicine to help with the pandemic. I had a real sense that I wanted to do something to contribute. I felt this is what I had trained for – not necessarily my expertise in sexual health and HIV – but I had many other medical skills which could be useful.
The GMC emailed me telling me that I was now licensed to practise and asked me to fill out a survey indicating what work I was prepared to do. Initially I said that I’d prefer to do remote work because my children were not at school and I knew I could more easily fit remote work around childcare and home schooling, and so when I had my initial ID check phone call with Health Education England a few days later I asked them to say I wanted that. They sent my details on to my local hospitals.
While I was waiting to hear from my local hospitals I spoke to my employer and my ex-partner, to see how feasible it would be for me to juggle work, childcare and NHS work. By the time I had an email from a local trust a couple of weeks later I had managed to rearrange my children’s contact arrangements so that I was potentially free every Saturday and Sunday to work in the NHS, and told them that I could now do face-to-face work if needed. I had told my children that I might be going back to medicine to help with the pandemic, and they and my employer were proud of me for volunteering in this way.
I rang the trust on the day they emailed me, and spoke to HR. I told them that before I started specialising in sexual health, I worked in emergency care and acute medicine. I said I could if necessary go to intensive care, not at a consultant level but still in a useful capacity. I’d be a safe pair of hands. Despite me having spoken to HR, and sending my occupational health form and the other documents requested that day, I never heard from that trust again.
Two weeks later, a month after having had my licence restored, I was contacted by another trust. By this time I had been furloughed by my employer so was really keen to do NHS work. I emailed the trust straight back to tell them which hours I had available, and tried to speak to the person who had emailed me. I was not able to speak to them in person, despite three attempts, and when I finally spoke to someone two weeks later I was told they didn’t need me any more.
Then, another two weeks later I received two emails on the same day from NHS England. One said my skills were still needed and I should hear from a local hospital soon, and one said while I might not be needed now my skills could still be useful at some later stage.
After that, I applied to be a contact tracer, and received more emails asking me to send in my proof of ID and other documents, which I did, but I then received an email saying that there had been so many applications that they had paused the processing of them for now.
I’ll admit that I am frustrated by the whole process. While I wasn’t available for full-time work, I had freed up every weekend, and in the process changed my children’s routine and inconvenienced my ex-partner, who all agreed to this as they believed that I would be doing something useful for the NHS.
Meanwhile, a lot of doctors were working under great pressure, and I would have done one Saturday night shift a week for three months, if that’s what was required, just to give someone a night off. All that I wanted to do was help. I know that I would have been useful. The NHS needs more doctors. It may have avoided being completely overwhelmed, but that was only because elective surgery was cancelled across the board and more ITU beds were created in almost all hospitals across the country.
As it happens, I had already applied separately to have my licence restored, with a view to working in sexual health again, I do still hope to return to the NHS, but during this, the biggest medical emergency of my lifetime, I feel unable to help. It feels like a missed opportunity.
Now the NHS has waiting lists that are visible from space, and given that many of its existing staff are already exhausted, it seems a perfect time to start using doctors with a proven track record in the NHS to help it out when it most needs that help. It remains to be seen whether the NHS systems will be sufficiently adaptive to be able to take up those offers of help.
Eleanor Draeger is a sexual health trainer and medical writer, and former consultant in genitourinary medicine