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This Doctor Can: Dr Helen Newton FRCP

Retired consultant, Dr Helen Newton, talks about her time as a locum consultant and her return to work post-retirement. 

I resigned my consultant post aged 50 and still work aged 63. I have worked in six hospitals, spent three years staying in a B&B for on-calls and had three retirement parties, not to mention several farewell drinks at the pub! My experiences ‘half-in, half-out’ of the system over the past 12 years may resonate with others.

When several difficult years in my stroke medicine post led to my resignation, it was on the spur of the moment, with no plans. Luckily, word of mouth found me a locum job within the week. As a new face, and a geriatrician on the orthopaedic ward, it was helping a patient with a prolapsed rectum that first broke the ice!

Eight months later the surgeons and I parted friends and I left for a post in a specialist rehabilitation centre for a year. Working between two or three days per week, there followed over three years in general medicine, three years in stroke medicine in two hospitals, and two 6-month elderly care locums. I worked as an NHS locum and briefly through an agency.

Following my retirement in May 2019, I returned to my local hospital while younger colleagues took on COVID-19 patient-facing roles. I moved into the acute medical unit and combined this with spending time in our house in France. This year I have come full circle by working a few shifts back on the stroke unit in my local hospital. I am a PACES examiner and member of the PACES scenario writing group. The rest of the time I am happily retired.

Regaining autonomy has been great! I have met many new colleagues and learned so much medicine. The varied workload is fantastic. Appraisers have largely been supportive. However, the repetitive bureaucracy, the technical glitches and the problems with payments are all very frustrating. Negotiating agency rules is weird; I did a joining test where the most difficult question was ‘what is 6x7?’. The same agency arranged a day of mandatory training with a bullying instructor, which was simply not fit for purpose.

I now work on the bank at my hospital and arrange locums directly. I find it preferable to agency working, despite the lower pay (I feel a bit guilty that this is still more than my substantive colleagues’ hourly rate).

I realise how much hospitals depend on locum consultants. Most work through agencies, which is expensive. Continuity is poor and monitoring difficult. CPD is hard for locums with no professional leave or study budget. The cost of retaining my licence is high. I had one unhelpful appraisal; it’s hard to explain you haven’t done a ‘quality improvement project’ when you work shifts. These issues are common to many who work flexibly and making things more straightforward would help retention. Changes are essential.

My advice to doctors considering a similar change is ‘do it!’, but do your research, visit the hospitals, learn the IT systems and processes before you start. Avoid saying how much better it was in the last place – and take cake!