The right signals

by Radhamanohar Macherla

The training session was dull, barely relevant and compulsory – but then it took an unexpected turn

Location: UK
Published: Thursday 19 May 2022

‘Five minutes left!’ the invigilator said. I still had a question in front of me on the screen, but my spirits had drained away long before.

Doctors are no strangers to taking exams, indeed they are the portals through which we have to pass at every stage of our careers.

I remember moments of panic and moments of triumph, of inspiration and disappointment, going all the way back to my late teens. But this particular one was stirring no such emotions.

It did not help that it was compulsory, and that it could only be taken on site as opposed to online. And it did not help that the topic, while important – child protection – had been set without any consideration that I, as a geriatrician, might find it of limited relevance. There had been many other ‘mandatory modules’ in the months leading up to it, each with the inevitable test at the end.

If only ‘mandatory’ equated to ‘useful’. But no, I had had to answer hundreds of questions, including such gems as, ‘Employers have a legal responsibility if they employ more than how many workers?’ and ‘What is the name of the Act passed in 1985 relating to hazards in the workplace?’ Please don’t send in the answers.

I understand that one should know not to discriminate, to conduct interviews in a particular way, and yes, we should know the fire drill. Some of these are a matter of common sense while others are important to be made clear.

New employees could be briefed on relevant regulations during induction by a couple of sessions. But formal tests, repeated at varying intervals on details of the employment laws and health and safety regulations are, I think, completely pointless.

Surely our lives as doctors in the NHS are gruellingly time-intensive already, and every moment spent wasting our time on some module or other is a moment away from patient care.

‘Two minutes left.’ In this test, I hadn’t known the answers to most of the questions, and the ones I did answer were mere guesswork. The other candidates, either clever enough to sail through it or even less motivated than I was, had already slunk off.

The invigilator caught my eye, smiled, and then did an extraordinary thing. She appeared to purse her lips and blow me a kiss.

I was completely flustered. As a white-haired man in his 60s I didn’t tend to attract much attention of that kind, but, far more importantly, this was a workplace, and hadn’t there been at least one mandatory module dedicated to this very topic? I stared hard at the screen, unable to process it.

‘One minute.’ And then she whistled. Not, admittedly, like a building-site wolf whistle, but a whistle nonetheless. And clearly directed at me as I was the only other person in the room. This was too much. I’m a happily married man.

I gave up on the final question, pressed ‘submit’ on the test and made for the door. But she reached my desk before I could even haul myself up. ‘Whistleblowing,’ she said, with a sympathetic grin. ‘That was the answer to the question you’ve been staring at for the last few minutes. I know I shouldn’t, but I was trying to give you a hint.’

There was so much of the health service in that moment. A daft directive from management, in which we were all trapped. A bending of inflexible rules with a compassionate intent, which we all do at times.

And a great dollop of misunderstanding between colleagues – there’s plenty of that too – which in this case turned the blandest afternoon for just a few moments into a scene from a Carry On film.

Radhamanohar Macherla, now retired, was for more than 20 years a consultant physician with Barts Health NHS Trust


More from Viewpoint