Helen McGill, Responsible Officer and Medical Director at NHS Professionals, talks about her experiences in the role and her work to build strong support networks for locum doctors.

Can you tell us about your role as responsible officer for NHS Professionals?

I’ve been here since the get go in 2011, so I was in the first tranche of doctors to be revalidated in 2012. I remember thinking how revolutionary this was at the time. Now, only six years later, it’s the standard.

We have nearly 400 doctors working through NHS Professionals and I am the Responsible Officer for 30 locum doctors. My experiences are probably very different to responsible officers working in large trusts.

My connected doctors work in different specialties, at different grades and across many health trusts in England for both short and long term locum sessions – but of course, I still need to make sure that all of these doctors, in their different working scenarios, are meeting the requirements for revalidation. I give a lot of hands on support when it comes to helping doctors understand the information required for appraisal and revalidation.

The nature of their job means there is a risk that locum doctors may feel more isolated and disconnected from the normal support networks. I am very passionate and proactive in trying to establish better support networks and professional development for locum doctors.

This year, I’m organising a series of small conferences for locum doctors. The aim is to provide a useful learning experience – updates on developments in guidance or a refresher session on some mandatory training – and an opportunity for locum doctors to meet and build professional networks.

We held our first one in February and there was a really positive atmosphere in the room. It was rewarding to hear how the doctors involved were responding. One in particular stood out to me – ‘The event has given me a greater understanding of my practice, to give thought and allow time to reflect’.

I’m planning for the next one now and we want to get more locum doctors involved – the ultimate goal is to run these sessions across the country every three or four months. Our next conference is in July and will focus on professionalism and resilience.

I’m planning to work with the Royal Colleges to look at processes and systems for locums to progress their careers and eventually gain substantive employment if that is what they want.

This all chimes with the GMC’s commitment to improve support and oversight for locum doctors, in response to Sir Keith Pearson’s recent review of revalidation. I’m pleased to see this is a top priority.

How do you find the revalidation process in your role as a responsible officer?

I’d say that the support I’ve had from the GMC – both in terms of the Employer Liaison Service and the guidance – has been very good. I do think there are opportunities for improvement with guidance for doctors, to make it more applicable to doctors in different careers and working patterns. An easier to search and more accessible format would also entice doctors to the GMC’s website.

I’m pleased to hear that the GMC is reviewing the supporting information guidance for doctors to make sure that revalidation requirements are clear and supported by practical examples that help doctors and appraisers.  I’ve fed back my thoughts on specific areas where clarity is needed, as I’m part of the GMC’s reference group – a feedback forum for responsible officers, who meet with teams at the GMC to input into future projects or policies.

A key focus for me is making sure that the quality of appraisals is high. We  have a medical advisory group, made up of consultants from across the UK covering various specialties, and they support with appraisal.

We will be developing this further as the numbers grow by appointing an appraisal lead, which will strengthen our quality assurance process. I also found it really useful to have our appraisal processes reviewed through peer review with the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence.

If you could offer any advice to other responsible officers, what would it be?

Understand and make use of the support available to you, as you can feel quite isolated at times in this role. Beyond the support in your own organisation, the responsible officer network meetings are a good way of sharing experiences and learning from others in a similar situation.

Don’t be afraid to ask questions – it’s a bit of a cliché, but I always tell myself and others, there’s never a stupid question. Patient safety underpins everything we do and we can’t take risks when it comes to patient safety. It’s important to check when you’re unsure of something and I’d also say it’s important to understand the law behind the role.

Think inside the line and follow the process and guidance. It can be challenging when you’re trying to uphold a homogeneous process, with heterogeneous people and individual personalities within that. But stay focused on the brief.

How do you maintain a healthy balance in your role?

The role of responsible officer and medical director can be all absorbing, but it’s very enjoyable. I get my balance by keeping my work varied.

As well as my role as responsible officer, I’m also an examiner for the PLAB Part 2 test – the main route for international medical graduates to demonstrate they have the necessary skills and knowledge to practise in the UK. That helps me to keep in touch with other clinicians from all over the UK, to discuss ideas and share knowledge.

I’ve also recently been appointed to the GMC’s Investigation Committee. This is a statutory committee which, at the end of an investigation into concerns about a doctor, considers cases where case examiners have been unable to agree on the outcome or where they consider that a warning is appropriate, but the doctor has disputed the facts.

The training for this was top notch and stimulated the grey matter – it has really enhanced my understanding and appreciation of Good medical practice and the role of the GMC as a regulatory body, but also as a supportive organisation for us all.

I may have different experiences on a day to day basis, compared to other responsible officers, but I’m sure we all have many of the same motivations, same worries and challenges. We have a lot of people and organisations to think about in our work – the place we work, the doctors we oversee, the GMC and of fundamental importance, the patients that we’re all here to support.

Helen trained in dentistry and then medicine to pursue a career in maxillofacial surgery. She later trained as a GP and worked for many years in a large, inner city-like practice, which was for some time a teaching practice and supported training of medical students. Helen was active in the Primary Care Group and then Primary Care Trust and finally Clinical Commissioning Group, as well as working for many years in A&E as a clinical assistant.

Helen left general practice in 2014 as her role at NHS Professionals expanded. Helen has a postgraduate diploma in law from Birmingham School of Law. She is also a GMC Associate, having been appointed as a PLAB Part 2 examiner and a member of the Investigations Committee.