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Life as a GP trainee – during COVID-19

08 September 2021

Dr Katie Wolahan looks back at “the good, the bad and the ugly” of a turbulent time to be starting GP training

All changed, changed utterly – and I’m still searching for the terrible beauty in what has been for many a pretty terrible 16 months. As a GP trainee starting in July 2018, I regularly set my sights on the summer of 2020, to starting out in the career I had applied for months earlier but would not actually work in until my third year of training. 

It seemed like an inevitability – the streams of coughs and children and caregivers coming in from the waiting room, the community and camaraderie expected from seeing the same patients on a regular basis. However, COVID-19 turned the world on its head, and our cosy GP training community was not immune to its effects.

‘The Bad’ and ‘The Ugly’ were a big mish-mash of chaos, experienced by us all since COVID-19 first landed on our shores last year. As GP trainees, our unique challenges were likely both professional and personal, particularly in the earlier days of the pandemic when fear and uncertainty dominated our mindset. The first wave was a time of crisis management, particularly for those trainees diverted to COVID-19 wards in hospitals and COVID-19 assessment hubs in the community, with day release and exams impacted.  

In particular, no comment can be made on the experience of GP trainees during the pandemic without mentioning the loss of family, friends, patients and colleagues. Many of us contracted the virus in the workplace, and many others experienced first-hand the loss of loved ones to COVID-19. Ar dheis Dé go raibh a h'anamacha dílis.

GP training adapted as the year progressed with the advent of online day release. This allowed for continuity of training, and some much-needed respite from the COVID-19-dominated world around us. Things changed further with the restructuring of exams to an online format, with only one examination session being postponed overall. The ICGP trainee conference was rescheduled and run in an online format in April of this year. Across all aspects of training, creativity and willingness to adapt has been required, and used to their utmost ability to retain as much of the traditional GP trainee experience as possible.

Much of what I hope for now is what I likely took for granted before – myself and many colleagues of mine eagerly await the return of in-person day release as soon as it is safe to do so. I feel very lucky to have had 18 months with my year group before the pandemic, and this group were definitely ‘The Good’ in the story – they became my COVID-19 family, my support structure for many months while unable to get home. It is impossible to overstate the value of the personal and professional relationships built during in-person day release, and I hope trainees in the years to follow will soon benefit from it the way we did when it returns. 

Next year, in my last year of GP training, I look forward to seeing the ‘regulars’, the ‘small’ things, the ‘nothing’ things and the ‘just-to-make-sure’ things, much of these missing during my first year as a registrar. A unique strength of a general practitioner often spoken of, thoroughly knowing the patients, is a difficult endeavour without ever seeing somebody face-to-face, and is something that many of us are only now getting to experience for the first time. My most enjoyable day this year was our first COVID-19 vaccination clinic – many friendly faces finally put to voices heard time and time again over the previous nine months – “oh YOU’RE the new doctor here!” 

Needless to say, I am so grateful for all the brains and brawn behind the COVID-19 vaccination programme that is beginning to usher in the new normal, the only normal I’ve experienced. I look forward to case discussion in 3D, with instant coffee in recycled paper cups. Finally, I look forward to seeing my year group of GP trainees on the Western scheme back in one room together again – a special hat tip to them, for being a truly wonderful bunch to have been stuck with.