“We dreamed up a medical centre” – Distinguished Fellow reflects on a long medical career 

12 April 2019

A well-worn box was delivered to the Wellington offices recently, much to the intrigue of College staff.  Enclosed in the box was a treasure trove of faxes, receipts, letters and telegrams from the early days of the College, sent in by Distinguished Fellow Dr. John Musgrove.

Now 88, John still visits the same Christchurch medical centre that he helped establish in 1970, and he says they care for him well.

We caught up with John to discuss his career as a GP and work with the College. His considerable contributions included overseeing as Chairman the formation of the New Zealand College, when it gained independence from its London counterpart in 1974.

This story was published in two parts. This part is all about John's career – to find out more about the early work of the College, click here.

What made you want to become a doctor?

Well I was quite good at maths at school and was always meant to become an accountant in my father’s construction firm. So I left school after sixth form and worked as an office boy while studying commerce in the evenings.  

During that year I saw the partners in the firm doing the same accounting that I was doing at university, and I thought I did not want to do this for the rest of my life. The experience has been very useful, however, as I have been treasurer or secretary of various organisations. 

After considerable thought, I decided to start Medical Intermediate in 1949. My mother always wanted me to be a doctor, but I did not take much notice of that. Eventually she proved correct, as mothers often do.

It was especially difficult to obtain entry into Otago Medical School at that time, as many of the 120 places were taken up by returned servicemen and university graduates who had preferential entry. I hadn’t done chemistry and physics since the fourth form, so I had to work very hard. 

My work must have paid off, because I shared the Ardagh Memorial Prize with a colleague in my final year at Christchurch Hospital.

What inspired you to go into general practice?

Between my house surgeon years, I did a month-long locum role for Dr JL Nicol, a family friend who was a general practitioner in Christchurch. I did a second month with him after my second hospital year, and I found the experience challenging and fascinating. Dr Nicol became ill during that second stint, so I stayed on to help him – and stayed on and on.

What were those first years in general practice like?

I started practice in 1958, in a surgery I attached to my house. I worked so hard that after a few years I thought I would not survive. I did three sessions of consulting a day with house visits before, between and after the sessions – plus obstetrics deliveries at any time.

I married my wife Olwyn that year; she had been a nurse at Christchurch Hospital. At that time, we had no receptionist or nurse, so Olwyn was responsible for running the house, answering the phone and finding me for emergencies when I was doing visits. 

It was really a family practice. We had two children and things were very busy. Olwyn still talks about waiting for me come home for the 6.30pm surgery with the waiting room filling up, and I was yet to have a meal. We formed a good team.

In 1961 we took 18 months off to visit London and do some paediatric work because, as I said, I thought I wasn’t going to survive in general practice. As everyone did in those days, I worked my passage to England as a ship’s doctor. We took the children with us, and Olwyn coped well in a very second-rate flat while I lived in at hospitals.

And then I understand you setup a medical centre.

When we returned to Christchurch 18 months later, the practice was busy. Dr Ross Moon, who had done my locum while I was away, stayed on with us.  

We employed a receptionist so we could make appointments, then a practice nurse and secretary joined us, which helped tremendously. Even so, we were running out of room – the secretary’s office was on the upstairs landing! 

So we dreamed up a plan for a medical centre and found a section on the corner of Memorial Avenue and Ilam Road, which was owned by the Catholic Church. The Bishop of Christchurch held the section for a year while we organised approvals and so on. We opened the medical centre in February 1970, and now I go to the same centre to be looked after.

Around this time, doctors in Shirley, St Albans and Christchurch South were also designing and building medical centres. We got together regularly, and it was during those years that we talked about starting our own College.

What’s changed in general practice over the years?

I’ve noted two changes over the years.

Firstly, with the development of medical centres there’s been a decrease in home visiting. Although it put more strain on doctors, home visits were an excellent way of really getting to know families. Once you had helped relieve a child’s sore ear or a man’s renal colic in the middle of the night, you really became an integral part of a family. That has largely been lost, which is a pity.

Another difference, which is not restricted just to College members, is the practice of doctors talking to their computers rather than to the people they are interviewing. Most general practitioners cannot touch-type so they need to look at the keyboard while entering details. This detracts from face-to-face contact with patients, of course. I do not know the solution to this, but developing touch-typing skill would help.