Migrants who made the NHS: the RCGP has paid tribute to GPs who served patients – and the profession – during difficult times in the history of general practice
The central role played by South Asian doctors in British general practice and the wider NHS is explored in a new exhibition at the Royal College of GPs that coincides with the 70th anniversary of the establishment of the National Health Service.
Migrants who made the NHS focuses on the GPs from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka who kept the NHS afloat by working in general practice in some of the most deprived areas of Britain from the 1940s-80s.
Based on the book Migrant architects of the NHS: South Asian doctors and the reinvention of British general practice (1940s-1980s) by Dr Julian M. Simpson, the ground-breaking exhibition draws on archival research, photographs and oral history interviews with 40 GPs who moved to Britain from South Asia during that period– including some who are still practising today.
It demonstrates how they kept the family doctor service thriving, particularly for patients in working-class and inner-city areas, by filling the void largely created by UK doctors choosing to work overseas, and before general practice gained its rightful recognition as a medical speciality on a par with hospital medicine.
Britain was a popular choice for South Asian doctors to practise medicine during the 1940s-80s, given the well-established links built during the British Empire. Medical training in the Indian subcontinent remained heavily under British influence after independence.
The lack of UK-trained doctors wanting to work as GPs meant that it was an area of medicine where South Asian doctors could build good careers.
This was particularly the case in poor, industrial areas where patient demand was high, but GP recruitment was difficult, and as a result, the presence of South Asian GPs became very concentrated.
By the 1980s about 16% of GPs working in the NHS had been born in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh or Sri Lanka. They were responsible for delivering patient care to around a sixth of the population. In some areas they made up more than half of the GP population.
The wider impact and influence of migration from the Indian subcontinent on British medicine cannot be over-estimated. There are today 1724 doctors with the common Indian surname Patel on the General Medical Council’s list of registered medical practitioners – only slightly fewer than doctors with the surname Smith (1750).
South Asian doctors often faced racial discrimination and, for women, sexual and racial discrimination, when applying for jobs and the exhibition also looks at the adversity they came up against.
Professor Mayur Lakhani, President of the Royal College of GPs, said: “General practice in the UK would not be what it is today without the hard work, innovation, and courage of our predecessors, and their dedication to delivering high-quality patient care. Indeed, without them, our profession and the NHS might not even exist at all.
Not only were they doctors, but they became highly-valued members of the communities in which they practised. Whilst many faced incredible challenges, our exhibition also documents the overwhelmingly positive and lifelong relationships they forged with their patients.
We are hugely privileged to be hosting this exhibition at the headquarters of the Royal College of GPs – in the home of general practice – to honour the work of this often-overlooked but incredibly important group of doctors. In the year that the NHS celebrates its 70th anniversary, it is especially fitting that we pay tribute to them.”
Julian M. Simpson, the author of the book the exhibition is based on, said: “The NHS evolved during its first four decades into a system based around general practice and primary care. By becoming family doctors, South Asian doctors prevented a GP recruitment crisis. Through their work, they shaped the field as it transformed itself into the cornerstone of the British healthcare system.
“It’s important to also remember that the National Health Service was established to make healthcare accessible to those who could not afford it. And for millions of people, particularly in working-class communities across Britain, accessing that care meant going to see a GP from the Indian subcontinent.
“Doctors from the Indian sub-continent were therefore not just contributing to the NHS, they were its very lifeblood. We should acknowledge they were amongst the architects of the NHS.”