Last February, the RCGP UK Council voted overwhelmingly in favour of the creation of the Rural Forum which will run as a two-year pilot.
The RCGP's annual conference, held in Glasgow last November, marked its official launch. The Forum will be a vital resource for all GPs who work in rural practices throughout the UK, many of which dispense.
It will complement work done by organisations such as the Institute of Rural Health (IRH), the Remote Practitioners' Association Scotland (RPAS) and the Dispensing Doctors' Association (DDA).
Promote rural issues
The forum's key task is to develop a group to represent rural and remote GPs within the RCGP, with the potential to promote rural issues within the college faculties and to become the rural face of the college.
It also aims to encourage those fellows and members working in rural practice to engage with the RCGP; to advance the college's objectives in rural practice; and to facilitate communication between rural doctors throughout the UK, providing networking opportunities.
An important role will be to support the professional development of rural GPs, with particular reference to the required knowledge, skills and attitudes of a GP caring for patients in a rural setting.
Meanwhile, the forum aims to promote remote and rural issues at an appropriate level, engaging with GPs and managers and informing political debate.
At the RCGP's November conference, a session on rural issues was one of eight concurrent streams, attracting around 80 delegates.
Rural health in Australia
A presentation about the launch of the Rural Forum featured a video recording from Professor Richard Hays, a leading academic on rural health in Australia.
He was the inaugural dean of the new James Cook Rural Medical School in Townsville, Northern Queensland, and has worked as head of Keele University's (UK) School of Medicine.
Professor Hay gave sound advice in support of the RCGP setting up the forum, and on avoiding the pitfall of creating a rift with the college by creating an independent rural college, as exists in Australia, the creation of which has left its scars.
This was followed by a stimulating presentation by Associates in Training committee representative and Rural Forum Steering Group member Dr David Hogg.
He focused on what needs to be done to get associates in training to consider a career path in rural practice; for example, setting up a virtual network for interested trainees.
More than 300 members
Three months on, we have more than 300 members but we hope to attract many more once we appoint an administrator for the forum in March.
The office will be in the north east of England and members can expect more information soon.
Priorities for this year comprise continuing involvement in the rural-proofing of revalidation; exploring ways to support rural doctors in achieving their educational needs; developing an effective communication network for members; and responding to the DoH and other agency consultations.
We will also create a constitution and democratic framework for the forum and highlight members' concerns about issues, such as the proposal to abolish practice boundaries.
Until the forum's membership grows and a constituency base is established, it will be run by the steering group, comprising enthusiasts from across the UK (including representatives from the IRH, RPAS and the DDA), and chaired by me.
However, as soon as is practicable, elections will be held to ensure democratic representation. I have set a target date for elections either before, or at the time of, this year's RCGP annual conference, taking place in Harrogate in October.
Membership of the forum is open to all RCGP members and associates in training who express an interest in rural practice.
This is an exciting opportunity to create a structure within the college that can help ensure that RCGP policy is 'rural-proofed'.
Since the demise of the BMA/GPC rural practice sub-committee there has been no formal professional body with a specific remit to represent and promote rural practice in the UK.
Although the RCGP's Rural Forum will have no formal role in contractual issues, it will seek to ensure that the concerns of rural doctors and their patients are brought to the fore.
The scale of membership at the end of the two years when the pilot is evaluated could well be a key factor in determining whether the forum has a long-term future within the RCGP.
So if you care about the future of rural practice, be sure to join the forum as soon as possible.
- Dr Malcolm Ward is a GP in Derbyshire and chair of the Rural Forum Steering Committee. He is a former chairman of the Dispensing Doctors' Association
- Joining the Rural Forum is free for RCGP members: if you already have an RCGP online services login go to https://integra.rcgp.org.uk/membersarea/login/login.asp?type=EXTRANET; if you do not yet have a member's area password request one by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org or calling (020) 7344 3182.
- Virtual network for associates in training: email@example.com.
- Rural blog: www.ruralgp.org.uk is independent of the RCGP and provides news on rural health issues.