The many kinds of general practitioner

Delivering a soundbite is not too different from giving a take-home message to a patient

‘GPs, like journalists, are good at explaining things.’ File photograph: iStock

General practitioners are like the players on a football team who can all do the basic tasks of kicking, passing and heading a ball, but most will have a specialty as well.

Some GPs specialise in family planning, minor surgery, sports medicine, or medical education. And there are a small group of media GPs, who write for the papers, blog and appear on TV. I am one of those who occupies a regular radio slot.

There seems to always have been a few of us knocking about, since the days of The Gay Byrne Show anyway. We are sought out on occasion, when a sports star wrecks a cruciate, or a celebrity falls ill. Most of us had regular spots on the radio as a kind of public service broadcasting task, between the gardening slot and the farming correspondent, to explain what is topical and gently educate the listeners. The radio is always on in the background of Irish life, from cooking the dinner to driving the car, and radio listeners tend to be knowledgeable.

I enjoyed going down the studio. The topics could go anywhere – this time of year we would be probably discussing the flu jab and establishing sleep routines and healthy eating for schoolchildren. Then everything changed.


The waiting room disappeared, the remote consultation became commonplace, the staff wore scrubs and the media GP’s role suddenly became a vital part of the pandemic war.

The studio closed. Interviews were done over the phone. The Irish College of General Practitioners (ICGP) sent us regular bulletins about the mysterious, shape-shifting virus and what was being done to combat it.

Vital message

One vital message was that practice was open although the doors were closed. We emphasised that worrying lumps and unexplained weight loss still needed to be checked out. We gave advice on maintaining fitness in lockdown, on vitamin D and healthy immune systems, on social contact, on symptoms of depression and burnout. Azithromycin and Ivermectin were examined and regretfully dismissed. Masks proved their use. As each message from research became clearer we passed it on: on loss of smell, shortness of breath, R numbers, immunosuppression, long Covid symptoms and management. I am not an expert on mRNA or population demographics, but I know where to find the correct information and how to pass it on.

My slot is usually on a Wednesday on Tipp FM. I got used to scanning information from the WHO, ICGP, HSE and Health & Family supplement in the The Irish Times.

I would listen to the professionals from Nphet (the National Public Health Emergency Team), to Prof Luke O’Neill, to the experts on RTÉ’s Prime Time and the Claire Byrne show. I got used to coming home exhausted after a frantic day at work and scanning the screens for the most relevant and necessary messages to pass on to the listeners in the morning.

Communicating efficiently

A key role for a GP is to communicate efficiently. Finding a clear message for a soundbite is not too different to giving a take-home message to an individual patient. My respect for my media colleagues, and Fran Curry, the Tipp Today presenter, and his team in particular, went even higher as the emergency went on.

Fran is always well briefed and knows all the facts and issues. Many say that listening to us is like overhearing two friends chatting over pints. And this is as it should be. There is no panic, no preaching, just a clear discussion of the known facts and precautions. Fran asks the questions the listeners want to know the answers to amid the masses of information and misinformation available. Doctors and journalists are professionally and ethically bound to report the truth and the scientific consensus. We are not so different.

GPs, like journalists, are good at explaining things. We spend an inordinate amount of time reinterpreting hospital speak, giving bottom lines and telling patients what the hospital failed to communicate. We knew more than we thought we did, or quickly learned, about droplet infection and herd immunity; we spread the news about the hubs and the care homes and the vaccination centres.

The word that comes back to the ICGP about the media doctors again and again is reassurance. From all the information available the calm and trusted tones of figures from Denis McCauley in Donegal to Eamonn Shanahan in Kerry and Ilona Duffy, Nuala O'Connor and Ciara Kelly on the national stage brought reassurance and clarity. They traded up the role from talking to one patient to talking to thousands at a time.

Soon we will be back in the studios, and I hope we will be back to discussing hay fever and a soccer player’s knees.