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Master's study provides GPs with a fresh outlook

Being a full-time GP principal was not challenge enough, so Dr Chris Hall signed up for a master's degree.

The personal and professional commitments of most colleagues reading this will be legion, but there comes a point when you need a challenge - a fresh perspective on things.

Three years ago, as a full-time GP principal in a busy semi-rural practice, I found myself spending nine sessions per week seeing patients and doing a one-in-four on-call rota.

I had always flirted with academic general practice and, having done some teaching and audit work, I wanted to broaden my research background.

I felt that I would benefit from a fresh challenge outside work, something that would give me personal satisfaction while advancing my career.

So when I heard about the Cambridge University master's degree in primary care, designed to extend the knowledge base of practitioners in primary care research, I applied.

Candidates were required to go through the standard Cambridge University entrance and matriculation requirements of interview and selection.

My circumstances were perhaps unique in that I live and work in Northern Ireland, and taking on a two-year part-time master's degree meant convincing the interviewers that I was sufficiently committed to travel across to Cambridge every few weeks for concentrated teaching sessions and lectures, sometimes over a few days. But after a gruelling interview and selection process, I was successful.

Logistics

The Cambridge academics were very flexible and appreciated the logistics of travel and my tight schedule. The tutorial-based teaching system at Cambridge allowed me to have a virtually bespoke degree layout, with one-to-one tuition. Lecturers made it clear that they were happy to be contacted by email or phone with questions at any time.

I took five taught modules over two years: research evidence, research methods, healthcare policy and planning, health social sciences and organisation and management. I also completed a 15,000-word dissertation involving original research. This required Ethics Committee clearance which was a lesson in itself. My research was based on statin prescribing in primary care.

A very real consideration for any GP contemplating a master's degree is the financial cost. Tuition fees are not cheap - typically £6,000-£7,000 for the whole course.

A number of funding sources are open to GPs, such as extended study leave and approaching the pharmaceutical industry.

Consideration of the new ABPI guidelines and discussion with your medical defence body regarding the wording and implications of any approach to the pharmaceutical industry would seem prudent.

There is also the cost to one's home life - I found myself working most nights until 1am or 2am to keep up with course work. However, if you have a positive approach and rise to the challenge, then you can always make time.

Far from being a diversion, I found that the course work immersed me more in the very stuff of primary care and I then began to reflect on the wider, more qualitative paradigms of clinical practice.

As well as full-time practice and the master's degree, we have three young children, we moved house and my father died. A supportive family is invaluable.

The upshot is that I graduated from Cambridge in May this year. The trouble is I've now been offered the opportunity of pursuing a PhD and, to be frank, I'm tempted.

- Dr Hall is a GP in Hillsborough, County Down

COURSE BASICS

Course: two-year part-time master's degree in primary care, to extend knowledge base of practitioners in primary care research.

Contact: www.admin.cam.ac.uk/offices/gradstud/admissions/

Cost of course: circa £6,000-£7,000.

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