Professor Simon Gregory recognised in New Year Honours

By Laura Kenworthy 5min read

Professor Simon Gregory, Homerton Fellow in Clinical Medicine, has been awarded an MBE in the New Year Honours List for services to general practice.

As Deputy Medical Director for Primary and Integrated Care at Health Education England, Simon has particular responsibility for GP training and dental education. Alongside roles as an Honorary Professor at Norwich Medical School and a Visiting Professor at Anglia Ruskin, immediate past - Chair of the RCGP Committee on Medical Ethics and of the University of Cambridge/East of England Military Education Committee he also continues to work as a GP at the practice where he was formerly a partner.

Simon joined Homerton as a Fellow in 2011, a while after he took up the role of Postgraduate Dean for the East of England, which is both an NHS and a University of Cambridge appointment.

“The person in that role wasn't historically made a Fellow of a College, but (former Principal) Kate Pretty appointed me, I think because she was hoping to build the case for Homerton to take on medical students,” Simon recalls. The collegiate connection provides opportunities for diverse interactions that he has missed over the past two years.

“I miss having a coffee in the Combination Room or talking to people in the corridor and being surrounded by all those extraordinary people from so many disciplines. I get my best ideas not from talking to other doctors but from talking to academics from across the spectrum, and I miss that.”

Friendly chats with Homerton colleagues were, of course, far from the most urgent part of Simon’s life to be reconfigured during the pandemic. As an asthma sufferer, he was shielding at home, juggling virtual appointments for his own patients with managing trainees and responding to requests for GPs to be deployed to different parts of the health service.

“I felt a bit guilty that my practice had said the risk to me was too great to be in the building,” he says. “You become a doctor to help people, and suddenly I was stuck at home and helping remotely. The NHS workforce needed to change overnight, and it was a very steep learning curve for everyone.”

As a doctor, he recognised that the support he was able to offer his patients often manifested in different ways than through face-to-face appointments.

“I remember having a call to a single mother with an autistic child in a tower block, frightened and unable to leave the flat. Or a patient concerned for his father, who was shielding in Cambridge. I was able to transfer the prescription he needed to their local Tesco pharmacy, from Northamptonshire, to provide continuity of care from a distance.”

Although acutely aware, from both a doctor’s and a patient’s perspective, of the threat posed by COVID, Simon has also worried about the effect of the measures used to address it.

“Whenever we lock down I’m concerned about those living in unsafe conditions, either because of rogue landlords, or facing the threat of domestic violence. The health service is now trying to respond to the impact of COVID, the impact of delayed care, the care of long-term conditions which has been disrupted, the mental health impact of what we’ve all been through, the economic impact and the societal impact.”

Once the first vaccines were approved, the focus switched to supporting the rollout, a process which Simon describes as the highlight of his career.

“When the vaccine programme began, the first recipients were the elderly, many of whom had barely left their homes or seen their families. People came in their Sunday best, with their war medals on…they were so happy to be there and so full of gratitude. It was very emotional.”

However, despite his obvious pride in the work of the NHS over the past two years, he had mixed feelings about the clapping and the rainbows that demonstrated the country’s support for healthcare staff.

“I just think we also need to recognise the unseen heroes who kept the logistics of the country going – the food delivery drivers, the shop workers, the refuse collectors. When I went to Bart’s (St Bartholomew’s Hospital, University of London) in 1984, I was the first person in my family to go to university, and my dad was very proud. But he said: ‘Don’t get up yourself. If the binmen stop collecting, it won’t matter what the doctors do.’ And he’s still right!”

His role at Health Education England, irrespective of the pandemic, has involved increasing the number of GPs being trained, and the focus of that training.

“In 2014 we recruited 2,671 trainee GPs, and it’s now 4,000 a year. They used to do 18 months of that training in hospitals, but the best place to learn to be a GP is in general practice, so we’ve moved it to 24 months in general practice and 12 months in hospitals.”

Owing to the number of GPs retiring early or leaving due to burnout, the overall number of doctors working in general practice has fallen in recent years, despite the significant increase in trainees.

“General practice at the moment is the busiest it’s ever been. We’ve got displaced care from hospitals, delayed care because of COVID, the vaccination programme to deliver, and staff off sick or isolating. The trainees have been absolutely incredible over the past two years. They put their lives on hold and took on a ridiculous, and often very emotional workload.”

Simon’s MBE is “for services to general practice” – phrasing of which he is enormously proud.

“The health service is built on the rock on general practice. Everything I do is a team effort – I’m grateful for the honour but embarrassed that it’s me when everyone around me contributes so much. But I’m delighted that it’s for services to general practice, the job I decided I wanted to do when I was 11 years old.”