Dr Sarah Thurgood Banner
Dr Sarah Thurgood Banner

GP’s community experience proves invaluable in her hospice role

Having a GP working at the Northfleet hospice is a real bonus for the ellenor charity, its staff and most of all – its patients.

Dr Sarah Thurgood is fulfilling a long-held ambition by working at the hospice, where she is now a Senior Speciality Doctor for two to three days a week and is working towards the new Specialist Grade introduced for doctors.

She said: “I grew up locally and have a long history with ellenor. It started when I was in the school sixth form and volunteered at the hospice. First of all, I was in the kitchen and then I took the drinks trolley round to patients and changed their water jugs. I always enjoyed chatting to the patients. I knew I wanted to study medicine and volunteering at ellenor gave me an opportunity to have direct patient contact. It was really nice to see how the organisation worked.”

Before long Dr Thurgood was off to medical school at King’s College in London where she was lucky enough to spend some time in a leading palliative care centre, The Cicely Saunders Institute. The centre brings together academics, healthcare professionals, community organisations, patients and carers in one centre and acts as the hub for a network of international research.

“That provided me with more inspiration,” said Dr Thurgood. “I had always thought that palliative medicine was what I wanted to do. You have a chance to really get to know a patient, and in quite a short period of time. You build relationships quite quickly and that includes their whole family – that’s such an important part of palliative medicine. I enjoy having the time to do this and I love the fact that our automatic standpoint at ellenor is – let’s see what we can do!

“Conversely, my work at ellenor has also helped me as a GP and my colleagues will come to me for advice in palliative medicine now. That interface has been really positive, and I have more confidence to speak to patients who have palliative care needs about advance care planning. It can be difficult to recognise when you’ve known them over a long period as their GP. For instance, does the patient want to continue a certain type of treatment. Do they want to make plans for the future? Are we doing the right thing by them?

“When I start the conversation, I am often amazed how keen people are to have that discussion, although of course that’s not always the case for everyone. Mostly people

are very happy to discuss options. For many, especially frail patients with multiple illnesses, it’s all about quality of life. And for us it’s about being able to offer them the opportunity to discuss their wishes.”

After finishing her course at Kings College, Dr Thurgood went on to train as a GP. Within this training she had the opportunity to spend a four-month post at ellenor which cemented her links with the organisation. Later she was invited to join the board of trustees at ellenor, a role she fulfilled for a few years.

She said: “It was a great insight into how the organisation works and gave me a broader view. When my son turned two, I heard about possible job opportunities at ellenor, and it seemed like the right timing for me.

“I had gone back into general practice at the end of my maternity leave, right in the middle of the pandemic, there was a new computer system and our working model had completely changed. On top of that we were dealing with staff being unwell with COVID or having been advised to isolate – it was a pretty stressful time.

Dr Thurgood started her doctor role at ellenor in February 2021, and is now also working towards a newly introduced Specialist Grade role. Her experience as a student tutor and educational supervisor at King’s College holds her in good stead, as well as speciality exams in palliative medicine. 

She will be working closely with the palliative care team at Darent Valley Hospital and the Pilgrims Hospices who are supporting her to achieve the new grade. She also has support from Supportive Care UK and from ellenor’s Dr Sheraz Majeed. Her long-term goal is also to gain a master’s degree in palliative medicine.

The majority of her time is spent at the hospice, mostly on the ward, but she does also visit patients in the community. She also helps “stepdown patients”, who come to the hospice after they have been discharged from hospital.

She said: “At ellenor I can give the patients my time and I can explore things with them. Working outside the NHS at the hospice gives me the opportunity to look at things holistically and ask myself how I can make something happen for a patient and their family. I get to meet the families and they help me to get to know the patients too.

“Working as a GP can be lonely sometimes, but at ellenor I am constantly interacting with the other members of our team, and everyone has always made me feel so welcome. And working one day a week still as a GP at Redwood in Dartford is a great opportunity to maintain those important skills and community links. It’s vital that our care overlaps; it’s hugely beneficial for us, for the GP’s and most importantly for our patients.

“It’s hard to quantify exactly what it is that we can do for patients here at ellenor, but we can have a truly holistic approach, which is sadly something GP’s cannot always have time to do as well as we would like as we usually have contact with 30 to 60 patients a day.”