I’m Dr Zena Burgess, the CEO of the RACGP.
This year we’re producing our first digital annual report, and for my segment of the annual report, I’m going to be interviewed by one of our new members, Dr Natalia Rhode.
Natalia Rode: Hi Zena, thanks for giving me the opportunity to speak with you.
Zena Burgess: What would you like to know about the RACGP?
NR: It’s been a big year for the RACGP, and I’d really like to get started by asking what you’re most proud of achieving from this financial year?
ZB: There are so many things. I’m certainly very proud of our digital innovation – shareGP, our member app, and what we’re going to be launching with our new website, which will make it a customised, personalised website.
I am very proud of the work we’re doing in education. The transferring of educational leadership to the college is something that Council have longed for, for a very long time. And that has been signed off by the Department of Health this year. So that’s a very large body of work I’ve been involved in.
We’ve been very active with the political parties, and although we don’t always get the funding we want for general practice – it’s still only at 7% – we will keep fighting the good fight, until we get an adequate amount of funding for general practice.
That said, I’m also proud of the college staff who work tirelessly, absolutely tirelessly for the members and are very passionate about general practice and general practitioners.
One of the things that has happened since I’ve been CEO and that I’m really pleased about, is that we’re actually getting younger people on Council, not that it was a problem, but if you’re in the first four years of your career you see the world differently to if you’re in the first year of your career. So having a diversity of voices on Council is really important, just as it’s important to have cultural, gender [diversity], to represent the community that we are trying to service, because people do come with different ideas, and that’s what we need.
NR: So one of the things you mentioned the RACGP having worked on is technology, and you mentioned shareGP, which has been around for, I think, about 18 months. I’d be interested to know how that came about, and what you think are its benefits for members?
ZB: We wanted to try and come up with some technology solutions that allow free and easy communication but were moderated in a professional way. We know that there is a number of other FB sites that members use, but those sites only speak to a small cohort of members and we were trying to find something that would work as a collaboration tool and a communication tool. We also are trying to do anything other than just send out more newsletters, and shareGP allows members to access information about the college when it suits them. And because shareGP allows people to put on any topic at any time, and start to generate a conversation, I am hoping to use it to get a stronger view about member sentiment around a number of issues.
NR: Another thing I’ve noticed which is fairly new, is newsGP – can you tell me more about why that started?
ZB: There were three reasons why I was really keen to have our own news channel. The first was, faculty newsletters fulfil one purpose, but a lot of the things that GPs want to know about, they want short, sharp news.
The other impetus from my point of view is I wasn’t happy with the coverage of medical and health issues by the mainstream newspapers and I didn’t feel like the RACGP voice was often heard in an unbiased way. So I wanted a channel where we could speak quickly to the members about key issues, so they didn’t read about it in the medical press, they read about it in our news channel.
I think we’ve managed to make it interesting so we pick up all health-related news, not just RACGP information, so it has become a reference point for both the medical press and the mainstream press, which is an incredibly privileged position for the college to be in.
NR: There have been a number of issues that have divided members, and that probably brings us to the increased media presence of the RACGP, and the new brand campaign. There’s been some positive views, and some less-positive views, and I think there’s been some questioning among the GP community about what is the purpose of this? And there’s also quite a bit of money going into this, so how is it going to benefit us as GPs?
ZB: There is about a million dollars more going into branding than used to go into marketing. So what I actually did was collect up all the bits of money that were being used and used them more effectively – which is my job as the CEO. As the college is becoming larger, and is financially stronger, we do need to do more in terms of marketing and branding. I sat in many Council meetings with the Council members lamenting that no one really understood what a general practitioner does, and that they are specialists.
So, I took the challenge to come up with a campaign that allowed the public to understand what a GP does. The first cycle I received 33 complaints from members saying ‘But that’s not what I do’, and I had to write back to each of them and say ‘It’s not actually about you – the GP – it’s about the public’s perception of the work of general practice and how to help the public understand the diversity of that’. Certainly one of the expected and satisfactory spin-offs has been the professional awareness amongst other groups of what general practitioners do, and our importance as a peak body and also the political influence we can have through being such a large professional organisation.
I think the challenge is really for the members to understand that this is business. And it is a member club and a member organisation, but actually it’s a pretty large business, and there are a number of business principles that we need to use to make sure we make the best use of members’ dollars.
The question about where does the money go is a really interesting one. Basically it gets spent on, I remember looking at the figures this week, in order it goes faculties, education, advocacy – they’re the three big ones – and then there’s brand and operations and staffing and things like that. But what we’ve done [in this annual report] is provide an analysis of where every dollar goes as well. So, if anyone’s got any doubts, they can see exactly where the money goes.
NF: Another topic that has been quite divisive of members has been the college’s stance on advocacy for various social issues. I watched the way the college approached the marriage equality issue last year – working in a clinic where we focus on LGBTIQ [lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex, questioning] health and being really aware of how it impacts on my patients’ health, I saw that the college initially had one response then changed that. Both responses ended up dividing the general practice membership. What’s the college’s stance on how it will approach issues in the future and whether it will continue to have a position on social issues?
ZB: That is something the Council was very vexed about, that was so hard, not because the Council didn’t have a view, but they were trying to work out the best way to present the various views of our members. As you can appreciate, with almost 40,000 GPs in the college, there are probably a large number of different views.
The college will continue to advocate on social issues, but not every social issue. They will selectively choose the ones they will engage in. You would appreciate that every week there is an appeal to me to suggest that the college take a position on a particular issue. There are times when we do so quietly, and there are times when we do so loudly, and there are times when we decline.
But it is something that needs to be evaluated each step of the way, because we are primarily a medical college, and we need to stick within the ambit of, ideally, what we are here for, but the interface between social issues, economic issues and health issues – they’re intertwined.
NR: One of the other things you spoke about was the college taking over education of registrars, how do you think this will change what the college is doing, or has changed it so far?
ZB: We have a very positive relationship with the nine RTOs [regional training organisations] that deliver training. We’re still in the transition period, which we will be for three years. But I think it gives us an opportunity to start to redevelop education so we’re planning for the future of medical education, not just doing what we have done before.
So I’m very excited, and I’m particularly interested in models of supervision, which is something that I looked at in one of my research degrees, for a different profession.
I think there are opportunities for improvement, and I’m looking to the New Fellows Committees and the trainees committees to give us feedback, not just on their experience to date, but as they move in to practice – what are they finding about practice and what do they want to know about practice, that they don’t feel really prepared for?
As you know, health is changing so rapidly. Not just with technology, but with the boundaries of expectations and the huge community demand. Ongoing education and initial education is going to become even more important for our GPs.