Running and GP: How collaboration can keep you going

Dr Mark Spencer discusses the importance of collaboration in his new blog for GP View.

Last year I completed my tenth marathon. As a seasoned runner, you may think it’s second nature to me by now – practically a walk in the park. But standing on the starting line in New York City, not having taken a single step and already feeling exhausted, I couldn’t comprehend how I was ever going to cross that finish line.

Somehow, just over four hours later, I did. It was by far the hardest thing I’ve ever done and took every ounce of resilience I possess to just keep putting one foot in front of the other. But it was the cheers from the crowd and encouragement from my fellow runners that really pulled me through. Looking around and seeing I was not alone gave me the strength to carry on, even at my lowest ebb. 

All marathon runners know the feeling of ‘hitting the wall’: a sudden and overwhelming sense of physical and mental fatigue that usually hits around the 20-mile mark. Rewind five years and that was exactly how I felt in my professional life – drained, demoralised and despondent. At the time, workload pressures were mounting as four of our partners retired in quick succession. Patients were coming to us with increasingly complex physical and mental health problems – issues that could barely be touched, let alone solved, in a 10-minute appointment. And rather than supporting us to carry on, GP representative bodies were calling for us to resign in protest.

I’d been a GP for over 20 years and finally ‘hit the wall’. Yet when I looked around, there was no one beside me. No runners to keep me going; no supporters to cheer me on.

It was, perhaps surprisingly, the simple art of listening that saved me. As co-chair of NHS Alliance, I was invited to a full day session on generative listening with a handful of other primary care leaders. I wasn’t sure what to expect but went along with an open mind. Throughout the course of the day, I connected with other people in the room on a deeper and more meaningful level than I had ever experienced before in my professional life.

Knowing that there were others on this journey with me brought a real sense of comfort. We met again, had more conversations, and for the first time in a long time, I felt hopeful about the future.

Those conversations were the very first seedlings of NHS Collaborate, a mutually supportive community of leaders from across primary care, connecting those who want to make a difference, those who want to take risks, and those who want to be brave, whether they have the word ‘leader’ on their badge or not. Over the past three years, I’ve had hundreds of conversations in a Collaborate setting, and there hasn’t been a single one in which giving up has been an option. This is a community which champions risk-taking and celebrates failure, generating immense strength, support and, above all, hope, for those working in primary care.

The generative conversations I’ve had over the years have really helped me to explore and understand my own sense of purpose. Working in Fleetwood, Lancashire – parts of which are significantly disadvantaged – I knew there was so much more I could do as a GP to keep my patients healthy and connect them with their community. Being part of NHS Collaborate gave me the courage and confidence to make this vision a reality: Healthier Fleetwood, a resident-led partnership approach improving the health and wellbeing of each and every resident of the town, is now two years’ old, and recently won an NHS70 Award for the North of England.

My experience of leadership within the NHS has largely been top-down, fault-finding, anti-risk and anti-change. But as the Collaborate community grows, I see a new culture of leadership starting to spread – one that is honest, open and purposeful, and embraces the imperfections that make us human.

However, you describe NHS Collaborate – a community, a culture, a movement – at its heart is a very simple premise. It’s about building meaningful relationships based on positivity and hope. It means when I look around now I see hundreds of runners running alongside me: a whole community of leaders cheering each other on. Being part of a community like this has been truly life changing. I’ve now been a GP for 28 years and couldn’t be more excited to see what the future holds. And it’s all thanks to NHS Collaborate – the best running club in the world.