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by Nora Elias
19 December 2018
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Practice manager Val Hempsey talks to editor Nora Elias about her four decades in primary care, her dedication to general practice, and receiving the Lifetime Achievement Award at this year’s General Practice Awards.
‘Being a partner in a practice is not that unusual but it’s fairly rare to be the sole contractor,’ says Val Hempsey, practice manager and, for many years, sole contract holder at Bridges Medical Practice in Gateshead, Tyne and Wear.
Ms Hempsey, who first joined Bridges in 1979, has been with the practice ever since and, between 2006 and October this year, she was the only partner at the GP surgery. Originally, Ms Hempsey joined Bridges in a different capacity – as a receptionist – before being asked to become its first, and so far only, practice manager in 1988.
Over the years she not only made the switch to being solely responsible for the running of Bridges, after the 2006 departure of what was then the last remaining GP partner, but also became heavily involved in activities and initiatives that extend beyond the practice.
Such commitments include practice manager lead for Newcastle Gateshead CCG; becoming a founder member of the Practice Management Network (PMN); being on the National Association of Primary Care (NAPC) council; CCG representative on the Gateshead Armed Forces Network; speaking at industry events – including the Management in Practice conferences – and focusing on the care given to patients with learning disabilities.
It’s this dedication to her practice and to general practice as a whole that saw her become the recipient of the Lifetime Achievement Award at this year’s General Practice Awards on 30 November.
Ms Hempsey does now have a fellow partner at the surgery, GP Paul Evans. However, this only happened in October, as a result of her plans to retire at the end of March 2019. ‘I had known for years that if I left the practice would have to be taken over by other people, or we would have to hand the contract back,’ she says.
Adding that she felt she ‘had a responsibility to the salaried GPs and other staff here’ for that not to happen, she explains that Dr Evans, who ‘came to work for us as a locum and never left, then stepped up and said he would be happy to [become a partner]’.
Before she began planning for retirement, however, Ms Hempsey says she had not actively been looking for a GP partner, having and been quite content to run the practice on her own.
She first became a partner in 2002, alongside the three GP partners the practice then had. In the years that followed two of the GP partners left and when the third retired in 2006, the decision was made for Ms Hempsey to take over the contract on her own.
‘We went to the LMC and NHS England and both were perfectly happy for me to do so. Everybody supported me becoming a single-handed contractor,’ she says. While Ms Hempsey humbly describes becoming sole contractor as something of ‘a last man standing kind of thing,’ she was also aware that after 27 years at Bridges, she knew it inside out.
‘Nobody knew that practice better than me and there was no GP that could have come in and run it better than it was run,’ she says. ‘I’m not saying they couldn’t have run it [just] as well, but not better – because it was a very successful little practice.’
Ms Hempsey found that having a team of salaried GPs worked well but also says the GPs never showed an interest in becoming partners. ‘Some of them have been here since 2005 but have never wanted to become a partner. If someone had really wanted to, I probably would have considered it but they’re perfectly happy being salaried GPs.’
She has not, however, found their lack of partner status to correspond with a lack of commitment to the surgery. ‘I always felt I had to have really good and loyal GPs around me, especially because I’m not a clinician. My GPs are not like other salaried GPs: they’ve always gone that extra mile, taking on additional responsibilities,’ she says.
Develop and encourage
The plan for her leaving the practice also includes training an existing member of the team to step into her shoes. ‘I’ve got a deputy [Joanne Palmer] who will be taking over from me as practice manager. She started as a receptionist, quickly became trainee secretary and has now been secretary for a number of years,’ Ms Hempsey says.
‘I’m not brilliant at everything but I do surround myself with people who I can see have certain skills, who have got something about them. I’m a good talent-spotter.’
Encouraging and helping to develop the team at Bridges – which today has around 20 members of staff and a patient list of 5,500 – is something Ms Hempsey has consistently tried to do over the years.
‘[For example] we had somebody come in as a receptionist many years ago who took an interest in phlebotomy, so we trained her up and she became a healthcare assistant, phlebotomist and receptionist.
She then applied to a nursing degree, which we encouraged her to do and she went into district nursing.’ Ms Hempsey says. ‘So I feel I’ve helped develop people and give them an opportunity; I think I have a nurturing role.’
One of the aspects she has appreciated about being the practice’s sole contractor is the relative freedom it’s offered her. ‘It’s given me so many positives because I’ve been able to have that flexibility,’ she says.
‘The accountability has sometimes been a strain, but I quite liked that I could make decisions for the practice that I felt were really positive and would take us forward – and I didn’t necessarily need to refer to anyone else.’
Although Ms Hempsey is retiring next year she is not, she says, completely disassociating herself from the practice, certainly not instantly.
‘I only live about 500 yards from the surgery and I’ll be there like a shot if he [Dr Evans] needs me,’ she says, adding that she will also be available to support Ms Palmer. ‘I’ll be a mentor from afar,’ she comments. ‘I still feel that it’s my practice and I wouldn’t want it to flounder in any way; I still want it to be forward-thinking.’
Ms Hempsey explains that she also plans to ‘keep some of the external things, like the PMN, probably the Gateshead Armed Forces Network and possibly the CCG [work]. ‘I’ll still be around but I want to be flexible so I can travel up and down to Wales, where my grandchildren live.’
Of her history of pioneering initiatives and taking on duties outside of the practice, she says that once she started getting involved, ‘things just kind of snowballed’.
‘I think I just got my face known and then people hear about you and ask you to do things, and then there were issues that I wanted to champion, such as [care for] ex-armed forces personnel and patients with learning disabilities,’ she says.
Ms Hempsey who ‘has a son who is an active serving member of the armed forces and has been for 19 years’ has a strong commitment to offering excellent services to veterans.
Under her leadership, Bridges has become a recipient of the Employer Recognition Scheme (ERS) silver award, presented by the Ministry of Defence, with Ms Hempsey a few years ago spearheading an initiative to collect information about former armed forces personnel living in the practice capture area – after a local gap in veteran data was highlighted.
In an ERS document, she is described as a ‘true veterans champion who promotes the armed forces wherever possible’, ensuring veterans are coded as having a history of military service and locating ‘over 4,000 veterans living within the council area’.
Another area of interest is services for people with learning disabilities. Ms Hempsey, who has a sister with Down’s syndrome, explains that she works with the learning disabilities team at Newcastle Gateshead CCG.
‘That’s about making sure that every practice is providing [annual] health checks; we recognise this, we promote it in the practice, and because I’m the lead practice manager, I encourage the other practice manager to ensure these things happen’, she says.
Ms Hempsey praises the contribution of her practice team in allowing her to maintain such a wide range of commitments. ‘I’ve been able to go here, there and everywhere because I have such a good team at the practice,’ she says. ‘I know that when I’m not there they will be able to handle things.’
Of winning the Lifetime Achievement Award at this year’s General Practice Awards – to which she brought her daughter who works
in the Welsh Ambulance Service – Ms Hempsey says: ‘I was floored to be honest, totally floored. I was delighted and a little bit overwhelmed because it was so unexpected.’
She is, she adds, happy not just for herself but for her colleagues across the country. ‘I’m absolutely thrilled, particularly for practice managers because I understand that it could have gone to anyone [to any profession]. ‘I think it’s a brilliant recognition of practice management and what good practice management can achieve.’
Practice managers are, Ms Hempsey says, not always given the space to grow but ‘if they’re developed properly I think they can make a hell of a difference. If you support your practice manager and allow them to expand, they can make a real difference in the practice and the CCG.’
In her instance, she adds: ‘The practice has been my life and has given me a fabulous career in practice management for which I am eternally grateful.’
Val Hempsey: key commitments