Bitter pill to swallow

PUBLISHED : Monday, 24 April, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 24 April, 2006, 12:00am


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It was no ordinary trip to the doctor's surgery. As well as getting some pills for my gout, I hoped to discover whether British Prime Minister Tony Blair's much-vaunted government health reforms really mean that our London GPs are earning more than stockbrokers, barristers and Cabinet ministers.

While some newspaper articles were talking about London hospitals having to shed jobs due to overspending, a new study suggested that some general practitioners in the capital were getting more than GBP250,000 ($3.4 million) a year. To be fair, the average salary, according to the Association of Independent Specialist Accountants, was GBP125,000. But that's still an awful lot of stethoscopes.

How did it come to this? How could a community GP out-earn a barrister? Well, this is London: an expensive city at best, where it costs GBP10 to go 3km in a cab, and plumbers charge GBP65 an hour. It's also down to Mr Blair's 'performance-related bonuses', which provide doctors with extra cash for meeting targets in high-quality health care and good record-keeping.

So how was my GP 'performing'? The car park had ample evidence of wealth: a new BMW, a classic Triumph Herald and a sparkling sports utility vehicle. There was no Rolls-Royce, but that was probably parked round the corner, its chauffeur doing the Financial Times crossword. However, there was a bicycle: obviously, that belonged to the part-time nurse.

Inside the two-storey red-brick clinic, the carpets were not exactly cashmere, and the toys certainly weren't of the handcrafted wooden variety.

And the receptionists were more old school than private school; cold and officious. 'Mr Bryan?' 'Yes.' 'Tim Bryan? 8.30?' 'Yes.' (How many Tim Bryans are there on the books at 8.30?) 'Sit down there please and wait to be called.' When I was called, Dr Smith was his usual happy self. 'Hi, what can I do you for?' he beamed. A nice welcome, I thought: that should earn him another bonus.

But this GP was young, straight off the hospital wards. Perhaps he wasn't such a big earner, considering the bike pump and helmet in his office. 'You cycle?' I asked. 'Don't you drive, then?' 'Can't afford to in London,' he said. 'So whose are the flash cars in the clinic's car park?' 'Perhaps they belong to patients, or the new barristers across the road. We rent them the spaces.'

Once outside, the truth dawned. A law practice had moved in. And the man in the grime-infested overalls who sat next to me in the waiting room was the one who drove off in the new BMW. He wasn't a doctor, obviously - but it is highly likely that he was a plumber.