60 seconds with Robert Varnam

Robert Varnam, NHS head of general practice development and GP at the Robert Darbishire Practice, on his childhood swimming memories, the joy of shared learning across practices and a lifelong dislike of rice pudding

What do you do to de-stress after a long day?

I spend a lot of time away from home with big groups of people so de-stressing is very much about family and home. I think a perfect end to a day would include cuddles and a bedtime story with our son and then chatting on the patio with my wife in front of a fire.

Tell me something unusual or interesting about yourself

As a child I was a serious swimmer and was presented with the choice of joining the Olympic training programme or focusing on my schooling and O levels. Nowadays I’d rather just bob around in water than swim properly, but the smell of chlorine still sends the adrenaline pumping.

What’s been your greatest achievement at your practice?

I’m really pleased that we’ve managed to improve access for patients despite rising demand, a growing list and inadequate funding. We’ve done a lot to diversify the clinical team, do simpler consultations on the phone and actively signpost patients to the right person.

If you could visit anywhere in the world where would it be, and why?

I’d love to visit Iceland again. I went about 20 years ago and it’s stayed with me. It’s wonderful being somewhere where nature is so big and so raw – and it reminds me of my mum, who was just brilliant.

What was the last thing that happened, professionally, that really surprised you?

Seeing the reaction of practices to Releasing capacity in general practice – Ten High Impact Actions, which we published last year. I’ve been amazed to see how thirsty people are to hear good ideas from colleagues in other practices – and then how encouraged they’ve been. It’s emphasised for me just how poor we are at sharing learning between practices – we either reinvent our own wheel or keep working harder and harder. I’ve been amazed by the power of sharing practical ideas on how to work smarter instead.

What’s your favourite aspect of your job?

Having the chance to spread a bit of hope and help people to help themselves; that’s one of the many things I love about being a GP and it’s a big part of my work at NHS England too.

If there was one thing about your job that you could change, what would it be?

Perhaps the travelling. It’s a huge privilege, visiting practices and leaders all over England, but the travelling can take its toll.

What unusual tasks have you done as a GP or as NHS head of general practice development?

In my national work I get to hear from practices about what they’ve achieved and how they’ve done it, as well as what’s hard and why; it’s normal for me now, albeit a great privilege. I actually think that pausing to reflect and share lessons like that is increasingly ‘unusual’ for many practice managers and clinicians and I’m increasingly convinced that general practice is too busy NOT to stop and learn – but it’s hard to have the courage to do it.

What would you put in room 101?

Rice pudding. However much I think I should like it, I just can’t. Just gives me the shivers.

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