Dr Sam Murton is familiar to many members, especially those who have taken one of her minor surgery classes at the College conference. Following her win in the recent College election we thought we’d find out a little bit more about our in-coming President. Here’s how the conversation went:
How did you get into general practice?
Well, it was back in the nineties when I was working as surgical registrar in Wellington. I had two young children and was about to have number three when I thought I might make the switch to general practice.
I hadn’t pursued it earlier as I thought I’d have to know too much about too many things, which seemed a bit daunting. And of course that is true, but at that stage of my life the option of working in a specialty that offered work-life balance was very appealing.
As it turned out, I started in general practice when my daughter was a very young baby. She used to come to the practice with me and she spent the first six weeks of her life under the table in my consult room.
Do you think GP training has changed much since you completed the programme?
The core principles are the same, but I think the programme is more supportive and structured these days. We didn’t have the GPEP2 seminar groups back then, so you did sometimes feel a bit isolated. In saying that, I have a very close connection to those I did my training with – and 20 years down the track, we’re still meeting up as a peer group.
I became a GP teacher almost as soon as I got my Fellowship. Ironically, my first registrar was pregnant which, having a young family myself, I could relate to. In fact, it seemed I was always assigned registrars who had young children – I was typically looking after the ‘pram trainees’.
Did you find it challenging juggling your family with your work?
Yes and no, but it’s all I’ve ever known. My daughter came with me to all my GPEP training sessions and I’ve always worked in a practice where female doctors were running off and having kids. It’s fantastic really.
My husband and I have been lucky with our work, we’ve been able to dovetail our careers so when one of us takes on a bigger role, the other can ease back a bit, and then vice versa.
When my children were older and I took on the role of National Clinical Lead GPEP1, we agreed they had to help out by cooking dinner one night each every week. We ate the same meals on the same nights for six months!
Can you tell us about your work as a GP trainer?
As I said, as soon as I qualified, I became a GP teacher. Then, around 2007 I took on the role of coordinating the GP training for the Wellington area. Being the Medical Educator was a bit of a leap, but I have fond memories of that first year.
It was such a wonderful group, and totally multi-cultural. We used to have shared morning teas on the seminar days and everyone would bring a national dish – it was fantastic, but man we all gained weight that year!
The National Clinical Lead GPEP1 role started in 2009. That role was really valuable, and allowed me to connect with GPs and trainees across the country. Gathering together the Medical Educator team was both challenging and exciting.
I then went on to be the first Medical Director for RNZCGP in 2013. This role let me see the machine inside the Ministry of Health. I was able to represent GPs and ensure there was a GP voice on projects such as end of life care and prostate cancer working group.
As a working GP, I could talk to my colleagues, then feed advice and concerns from the coal face straight to the policy makers. We put a lot of work into the end of life care project in particular – it was really robust, with loads of research and collaboration behind it.
You have some international roles too?
Yes, a few years back I did a Medical Educators’ leadership course in the UK. I then became a Fellow of the Academy of Medical Educators (AoME), and I’m currently an assessor, credentialing teachers and running AoME training programmes.
I’m also the WONCA South Pacific representative for the Wonca Working Party on Women in Medicine. This is such an interesting role. I’m part of a group of incredibly talented female family doctors who hail from places like Egypt, South America, and the Philippines. Their work environment is so different from ours, and their circumstances can be challenging.
It’s a good reminder of how lucky we are here in New Zealand. Some of these women don’t have the option of part-time work, so they are working incredibly hard. I think it would be interesting for our female GPs to hear what their international counterparts are dealing with, and part of my role will be to communicate that.
Can you tell us about your research work?
Well I’m considered an ‘emerging’ researcher. My first research was done while I was still in surgery, but since I moved to general practice I’ve looked into GP training, to better understand who is teaching and who is undertaking our training, I’ve also researched the students and their skill sets, to find out how skilled they think they are when they get to their intern year.
At the moment I’m doing research on bullying behavior within general practice, and I’m also looking at the use of art in medicine. I presented the results of the bullying research at the recent WONCA and College conferences, but we’re still working on the outcomes and analysis so that’s a work in progress.
The art research fascinates me. I’ve always had an interest in art and I found myself using drawings to explain anatomy, symptoms and treatments to help my patients understand their conditions. I realise there are probably many GPs and other health professionals doing the same thing, after all, we’re encouraged to use visual aids - but it’s hard to know how many of us are doing this as we’re all locked away in our own consult rooms.
Using drawings is a helpful way to improve health literacy, and if we can help patients understand what’s going on, they’re far more likely to apply instructions and follow their treatment plans.
Patients may come to me with an idea about a condition that they’ve picked up through the media or off the internet, and it may not be altogether accurate. A lot of our time is spent trying to allay patients’ fears and realign patient thinking. I find my drawings help with this.
I’ve set up a YouTube channel called Visual GP where patients and doctors can see my drawings – and hopefully use them to improve their understanding or explanations. One of the clips (HbA1c explained) has had more than 1,600 views already.
As if you weren’t busy enough, you’ve also got a role with Otago University, haven’t you?
Yes, I’m a senior lecturer and the trainee intern convenor for the medical students at the Wellington campus of University of Otago.
I look after 110 students each year, coordinating their six-week general practice intern placement while they’re in their final year. I liaise with the practices and the students, and I coordinate their assessments.
It’s great working with young people and I love the opportunity to introduce them to general practice and promote it as a career choice.
What do you love most about being a GP?
Aside from the medicine, it’s the patient stories that excite and motivate me. We are such a privileged profession. We hear stuff patients wouldn’t even tell their friends. We’re allowed to have an inkling into the depth of their lives, we’re trusted to hold that dearly, and we’re invited to guide them through some of their most difficult or happy times.
Just yesterday I had an amazing, open conversation with huge family, where I was able to reassure the matriarch that I would look after her family. It was so moving.
Our work is quite phenomenal. It’s quite a skill being able to make decisions every 15 minutes - it is a very good skill to have.
What are you hopes for the future of general practice?
I’m always an optimist and I’d like to see that feeling coming through from our members. As GPs we deliver amazing services and do a huge job. That needs to be valued. As a collective group of nearly 5,000 GPs we can have a positive voice. The community backs us. We do a fantastic job and we need to start shouting about it.
The College has a campaign called GP – Heart of the Community, but I’d argue we’re the heart of medicine. The health system would fail if general practice wasn’t around. In my role as President I’m going to be a loud advocate for our members, for our profession and for the services we provide.
Were your family pleased when they found out you’d won the election?
I have a very busy and supportive family. My children are 24, 22 and 20 now and they’re all pursuing their dreams, which is just wonderful.
Yes, they were excited for me, but I have to admit my big news had to compete with my youngest son’s – he did his first solo flight the day I found out I’d become President-elect. Thank goodness
I didn’t know he was doing it until afterwards! It was a big celebration for both us that day!