PF Magazine – Interview with Dr Helen Webberley, Doctor
We’re going back in time now, Helen – when did you first realise you wanted to help people?
Everyone hopes that you had a ‘Marie Curie moment’ as a little girl – mine wasn’t quite as romantic. My teacher asked me what I wanted to do for my A-Levels, and I said maths, physics and chemistry, because those are the subjects I most enjoyed. She suggested I think about becoming a doctor, so I did.
What was your early life like?
My upbringing was very rocky – there was lots of divorce, alcohol and gambling. From an early age I was always one of those children that were considered very grown up, but I had to be. I think those early experiences helped me see the world from every possible angle. Ultimately, those struggles made me the doctor I am today.
What’s it like working in Wales?
Some of the poorer areas in Wales are like forgotten towns. The contrast between where I live, in Abergavenny, and where I work, up in the valleys, is stark – it’s only five miles, but the difference is shocking. There are pockets of Wales – just like there are across Britain – where areas have been left behind in a cycle of unemployment, alcohol, abuse and drugs. It’s very sad. We need education, and we need children to know that there are different ways of doing things and different paths to go down.
What is going on with our junior doctors?
There are problems happening across the whole of medicine. I know the public hear us complaining about not having a pay rise for ages, our workload increasing and our pensions getting cut, but, although we do get paid well, much of our income is taken away. You read about £100,000 salaries but, after deductions, like premises and pension, what you take home is quite modest – it’s not the wealthy career it once was.
What impact is that having on new doctors?
For new doctors coming through, staffing salaries are comparatively much lower than they were 20 years ago, while the superannuated pension has been repeatedly cut. Doctors have always worked long hours, but the remuneration is constantly in decline and, most worryingly, respect for doctors is diminishing too. We simply don’t have enough doctors; they’re leaving in droves. That resentment is now becoming apparent in junior doctors, and they will go as well. There is a real risk that we will end up with no doctors in the UK.
It’s not so long ago that you were a junior doctor, Helen – has the landscape completely changed?
You wouldn’t believe how much. I went to medical school in Birmingham, and qualified 24 years ago in 1992 and, at that time, we worked hard, played hard and learnt an awful lot in the process. When I first started we used to work as part of a team, looking after patients from the moment they arrived, to the moment they left. Over the last couple of decades, however, we have moved over to the European working time directive. This places doctors on shifts, and they work for eight hours with one team, and the next eight with a completely different one. The whole team learning ethic has gone and, as a result, junior doctors are left under-skilled and, when they become GPs, haven’t got the level of training they need.
Are people still motivated to become doctors?
Medicine is still one of those degrees that everyone wants to do – if you get into medical school you’ve made it. We train so many doctors every year and, yet, where are they? I think you’ll find they’ve all gone to Australia or somewhere they can get a better working life. If this continues, we are going to be in trouble very soon.
Does government take that threat seriously?
I don’t think they do. The trouble with the NHS is that change takes such a long time to happen – often it takes two governments. Recently I was being put under pressure by a patient to do something that wasn’t right, and they were trying every angle. Eventually I received a call from their local MP and I explained my medical opinion, which he understood. I took this opportunity to invite him to my practice, and witness what we deal with on the ground floor. He said, ‘yeah, sure, I’ll come in September, after the summer holidays’. I haven’t heard from him since. Are they interested; do they really want to know what it is actually like? I don’t think so. If they did know the amount of waste in the NHS, I think they would be truly shocked.
Is part of the problem because the original 1948 NHS model is creaking?
When it was created it was fantastic, because it stopped the divide between the rich and poor, while providing free healthcare at the point of access – at last everyone could get a doctor. You should see what comes through the door at my surgery, though; people who don’t need to see a doctor, people with pill dependency issues and sick note demands. If you don’t refer the patient to the hospital they want, the language that comes out of their mouths you wouldn’t believe. It is not what the NHS was designed for; it has become what people can get out of it.
You’re also an online doctor, tell me about that
I love technology and two years ago I discovered that there were solicitors providing quick, online advice, and wondered why doctors weren’t doing something similar. There is a bit of online medicine going on, but it is mainly driven by pharmacies, so I decided to give it a go, and launched mywebdoctor in October 2014. People these days have busy lives and haven’t got time to book an appointment, sit in a waiting room, get a prescription and wait at a chemist – we all know that the process sucks. By sending the information to me online, I can provide patients with advice and, if necessary, make a prescription, which I can order instantly from my online chemist. The medication then arrives the next day – it’s amazing, people love it. What the internet has essentially provided is very affordable private medicine.
I notice on your website you have ‘top trends’ in terms of what people want to know about?
Yes, and this morning I had six new transgender enquiries.
There is definitely a gap in the market for the transgender community, because NHS care for them is appalling. Their suicide and self-harm risk is huge, because they can’t get the help they need. A lot of my time is spent helping these people and they are an amazing community.
For those still wrestling with exactly what ‘transgender’ is – please explain
The medical term for it is ‘gender dysphoria’ – and ‘dysphoria’ means ‘it doesn’t feel right’. I’ve heard so many stories about how, from a very early age, they just don’t feel comfortable in their gender. Mostly it’s people who are born male, who feel they should be female. They are ridiculed and beaten at school, and that leads to years of suppression. They look in the mirror; see their body and the reflection repulses them. In the past they could only achieve a sense of calm by secretly dressing in female attire.
What are the options for transgender people now?
Now that that medicine allows it, if you give these men female hormones, it suppresses testosterone and gives them the femaleness that oestrogen provides. Inside they start to feel better, and physically they get softer skin, start to develop breasts and get nicer hair. At last they start to feel how they should have felt from birth.
Are we making good progress with embracing this minority group?
I think it’s very similar to the 1980s when gay culture started to be much more ‘allowed’. I’m 46 and my generation accepts homosexuals – with my children’s generation, there isn’t even a question. We’re about 30 years behind that situation with the transgender community.
What do you think made you so empathetic towards the transgender community?
I was a GP for a few years, then had my children, and side-stepped into sexual health. I loved this side of medicine – working in family planning, counselling and psycho-sexual clinics. I had a real affinity with the kind of people that needed that particular sort of help. That environment definitely prepared me very well for helping my transgender patients.
What are your ambitions for the future?
I’m the kind of person who wants to go their grave being remembered for something, and if I can stand out for the simple duty of transforming the NHS’s transgender care, I’ll be happy. It’s going to take ten years, but I’m going to do it – and I’ve got all my transgender patients to help me. We’re going to shout, march and wave placards until it happens.
Thanks, Helen, that was inspirational!