We caught up with alumna Dr Heather Ryan to talk to her about her time at St George's and her career path since graduating in 2011. Heather is now GP, splitting her time between working in a practice treating the the public and as a Recruitment Fellow for the Royal College of General Practitioners.

Heather Ryan


What course did you study?

Medicine (I transferred to St. George’s in 2008 after my pre-clinical studies at Oxford)

What is your current role?

I work five sessions a week as a GP partner; I work two sessions a month for RCGP Midland Faculty as a Recruitment Fellow, promoting GP as a career to school pupils, medical students and Foundation doctors; I am an LMC representative; and I do some freelance medical writing.

How did you get into your current role?

I had a wonderful GP placement in my final year at St George’s which changed the trajectory of my career. I’d never considered General Practice before; I’d always thought of it as rather dull. The placement introduced me to the idea that actually, GP is a very challenging specialty: you have to make your initial diagnosis and management plan based just on your clinical assessment of the patient, and you have to have such a wide knowledge base. So, after my Foundation training, I went straight into GP training. I extended my training by a year to complete a Medical Leadership Fellowship, during which I realised I wanted to be involved in the business side of General Practice. When I finished my training, I went straight into partnership. In terms of my RCGP involvement, I was the Associates in Training (RCGP GP trainees’ committee) representative for my area during my training, and I got so much out of my involvement with the College – networking, a better understanding of medical politics, and a sense of friendship and community – that I wanted to stay involved once I’d qualified.

Can you describe a typical day?

I spend 2.5 days a week in practice. If I am duty doctor, I start work at 8am and work until 6.30pm, as the on-call doctor in the practice responding to urgent queries. This is very intense and can be stressful, as several urgent situations can arise at once! If it’s not a duty day, I have 10 booked patients in my first morning surgery, starting at 8.30am; a half-hour break; then six more patients. We then have a gap of a couple of hours, in which the GPs do their home visits and admin, and then afternoon surgery starts: 13 patients.

On Thursdays and Fridays, I undertake my other roles, and no two days are the same. To use last week as an example, on Thursday morning I had a phone meeting about a schools outreach event that I am organising on behalf of RCGP Midland; in the afternoon I worked from home sending emails; and in the evening I attended RCGP Midland Faculty Board. On Friday I travelled up to Keele University for a meeting about another RCGP Midland event I am helping to plan.

What do you enjoy about your role?

I enjoy talking to medical students, school pupils, and Foundation doctors about the wonderful opportunities offered by a career in General Practice.

I enjoy the continuity of care that GP offers; it’s very rewarding treating whole families rather than individuals, and building long-term relationships with patients makes it easier to be their doctor, as knowing the social and psychological issues helps to put patients’ health problems into context.

What do you find challenging in your current role?

Decision fatigue: GPs see a new patient every 10 minutes, and, factoring in phone calls and home visits, routinely interact with more than 30 patients a day. Having to quickly assess patients and make good clinical decisions in that time frame is challenging. I love my clinical work, but I’m glad I don’t do it five days a week: having a portfolio career keeps me fresh.

What advice would you give to a current student at St George’s who is keen to get in to a similar area of work as you?

Say “yes” to every opportunity you’re offered. I’ve ended up with the career I have because, if somebody asks me to do something, I say “yes” and throw myself into it. You don’t need thousands of publications or audits to be offered a place on the GP training scheme – the assessment is based largely around your potential, and whether you have the right basic attitudes and competencies. So there is no real need to do anything specific as a student to maximise your chances of getting a place on the GP training scheme, but if you do get involved in things such as student societies, quality improvement projects, or charity work, then those things will help you develop into a more well-rounded doctor and give you the skills you need to make a success of your career from the start.

Which aspects of your degree are relevant for your current role?

All of it! I am particularly glad that St. George’s had such a focus on communication skills and breaking bad news, as those things are such a big part of being a GP.

What would you say were the best / most challenging things about your degree?

I had a difficult experience on my first placement, where I was taught by someone who I didn’t have a good relationship with and who had a negative impact on my learning experience. In retrospect I wish I’d spoken to somebody at the medical school about it; I’m sure it would have been dealt with sensitively, but it was one of my first placements and I wasn’t sure what was normal.

The best thing about my degree was the huge amount of practical experience students gained on placements. As well as enjoying my GP rotation, I have particularly fond memories of my A&E and my Obs & Gynae placements.

If you could go back to your time at St George’s, would you do anything differently?

I’d try to attend St. George’s for longer! I did my pre-clinical studies at Oxford and transferred to St. George’s for my clinical years. Although Oxford is a world-renowned university, the teaching style and course format at St. George’s actually suited me much better, and I enjoyed student life in London much more than at Oxford. I wish I’d applied to St. George’s in the first place and spent 5 or 6 years there!

Do you have any advice or a message for current students at St George’s?

Make the most of the wonderful opportunities you’re being offered! Don’t just do the bare minimum: you get out of life what you put in. If you’re in a student society, volunteer to serve on the committee. Get involved with the Students’ Union or the BMA, or write for the student magazine. Enjoy living in London, one of the most incredible cities in the world.

Do you have any advice or a message for students considering studying at St George’s?

Quite simply, I would not be the doctor I am today if I hadn’t studied at St George’s. Studying there was one of the best things I’ve ever done, and I would highly recommend it to anyone.