Me? I'm just an ordinary doctor... Cicely Cunningham writes

It’s been a year now since my personal campaigning journey began – from a generally opinionated clinical oncology trainee to passionate advocate for a just culture in the NHS. The story began on 25th January 2018, when I was doing what many of us do of a normal evening – scrolling through social media on my phone. But instead of the usual fluffy animal pictures, something was afoot. All the doctors I knew on social media were up in arms about a court case where the General Medical Council (GMC) had pursued a paediatric trainee to seek her erasure from the medical register – Dr Hadiza Bawa-Garba. 


The more I read, the angrier I became at the injustice of it. The more I read, the more I felt that this could have been me. This had been me, as I too had been involved in a situation where care was sub-optimal due to the disastrous interplay of personal error and systems failures. I couldn’t sleep that night, and after several hours of tossing and turning, I got up and phoned Radio 4’s Today programme office.


A confused night shift producer answered the phone. “You’re a doctor and you’re phoning… why?” I pieced together the story as I’d understood it and I could hear the producer losing interest as I spoke. But when I mentioned that Jeremy Hunt was tweeting about this earlier that day, the producer’s ears pricked up again. It turned out they had Jeremy Hunt on the Today programme the following morning, and as a result of my phone call, he did in fact get asked about Hadiza.


After that my involvement snowballed. Joining a demonstration in Glasgow introduced me to some wonderful doctors in Scotland, passionate about changing the NHS for the better. Answering a call on social media for interested doctors to come together to work for change led to the creation of The Doctors’ Association UK (DAUK). During 2018, I produced submissions to government consultations, wrote letters to the GMC, the Secretary of State for Health, and the media. When the judgement on Hadiza’s appeal was announced in August, I headed to London to do media interviews along with other DAUK Committee members. Later in the year, I formally launched the Learn Not Blame campaign in Parliament, which was attended by Matt Hancock and Nick Ross amongst others. The DAUK has established an ongoing dialogue with the GMC and will be going back to them for further talks later this month.


I guess my point in telling you all this is to show that we can achieve things as ordinary doctors. The Learn Not Blame campaign is an opportunity for everyone who believes in a just culture in the NHS to come together to advocate for change, with doctors leading the call. It’s easy to feel helpless and hopeless within the sprawling, powerful NHS organisations we work for, but the small things matter. Just wearing your lanyard or badge, and engaging colleagues in conversation if they ask about it can make a difference. Just letting people know you are part of a different mindset, a supportive colleague, someone prepared to try and understand why things happened, can change how people feel at work. 


And if you are feeling small, insignificant and powerless, I just leave you with this thought from the Dalai Lama: “If you think you are too small to make a difference, try sleeping with a mosquito”.


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