‘The long way round’: How this award-winning GP found his natural home

Jolyon Attwooll

20/10/2023 1:53:53 PM

Ahead of the RACGP awards, past winner Dr Abhishek Verma says he never looked back after leaving a budding career in surgery.

Dr Abhishek Verma
Dr Abhishek Verma won the 2022 RACGP GP of the Year award for his inspiring work with disadvantaged families.

Be warned if you ever talk to Dr Abhishek Verma about his chosen vocation.
The Melbourne GP’s passion for general practice comes in such a powerful tide that it may just sweep you up in its path.
Just ahead of this year’s awards, the 2022 RACGP joint GP of the Year talks in an unbroken stream, issuing an inspiring call for the next generation to take a deeper look at the specialty.
‘It’s very easy to get distracted by everything you’ll hear about general practice, about their remuneration, about the challenges, about respect towards the profession,’ he told newsGP.
‘If you listen to that, it’s very easy to get swayed to think general practice is not for you.
‘But I would strongly encourage people that if they give it a go and truly commit to it, they will find this is just what you thought being a doctor would be like when you were a kid.
‘That’s what being a GP is. You’re using your clinical skills, you’re connecting with the patient, you’re trying to figure out a problem, you’re trying to use whatever resources you have, and you have to deliver good health outcomes.
‘If that’s why you studied medicine, if that’s why you wanted to be a doctor, you’re going to get that from being a GP.
‘You’re going to get that and more, because you’re able to connect with that patient’s family. You can see them over a period of time, not just provide an episodic element of care… and you’re going to see what you did has made a difference.
‘And if that appeals to you, then general practice is a natural fit.’
Dr Verma reveals, however, that it took a while for him to land in the specialty he now calls home.
‘I have to confess, being exposed to acute medicine in emergency and then doing a lot of surgical rotations, my initial career pivoted very strongly towards a surgical pathway,’ he said.
‘I did indeed pursue that for some time and did a Master’s of Surgery and was accepted onto surgical training programs in both general surgery and ear, nose and throat surgery.’
While he found the teamwork enjoyable, he was still unsure if it was the best fit. Nor did he feel the work life balance was right, recalling how he would go to work on Monday, and then go without seeing his wife for days. It was a sense that deepened when he became a parent.
‘I felt that I wasn’t having meaningful consultations with patients and the work–life balance was just so challenging,’ he said.
‘So, we decided to pivot to general practice, and it was just a natural fit. It was like, “I should have been doing this the whole time”, it was just so wonderful.
‘It was a long way round, but I just felt like “this is my home”.’
Dr Verma first gained a taste of general practice during Year 10 work experience at his family GP, then during a fourth-year medical school placement in the Victorian border city of Wodonga, and cites the positive influence of Dr Avi Kamale and Dr Peter Sartori respectively.
He credits those stints with opening his eyes to general practice and would like to see more medical students gaining the same experience.
‘If people had more exposure, if it was mandatory, I’m certain that people would fall in love with it,’ he said.
‘There’d be a far greater uptake of general practice as a specialty.
‘It’s a very tangible way to increase the GP workforce – we need good quality GPs, people who want to do general practice because of how good it is and what lifestyle it provides.’
Once he had found general practice, he discovered the most fulfilling aspect was working with marginalised communities who may traditionally struggle to find quality medical care.
Practising in Narre Warren, he treated a lot of recent migrants, including asylum seekers and refugees, many of whom came from non-English speaking backgrounds.
‘That’s the part of the job that I find most rewarding,’ he said.
‘It’s so much more empowering for patients and so much more rewarding as a clinician when you have patients that you can help access care and improve their outcomes.
‘I’ve made connections with a patient that have just been so profound, because they’ve been able to convey to me a sense that they’ve been able to accomplish this huge thing, overcome this huge obstacle, just through a better understanding of the system and being connected.’
For Dr Verma, that work means more than a life-changing diagnosis.
‘I have diagnosed a couple of male patients with breast cancer,’ he said. ‘That’s a pretty rare thing, it’s always gratifying when you pick something up like that.
‘But for me, far more gratifying is when you have a patient who’s been able to get a really good health outcome, where ordinarily they would have perhaps not been able to get anywhere near that.’

 RACGP President Dr Nicole Higgins presents Dr Verma with his GP of the Year award in 2022.

It was his passion for this type of medicine, along with his work as an advocate and medical educator, that led to Dr Verma being named the 2022 GP of the Year at the age of 38. He shared the honour with Sydney GP Dr Anju Aggarwal, and says he was ‘gobsmacked’ to be recognised in that way.
‘I see the people who’ve won that award previously, they’re all vastly experienced people I respect so much,’ he said.
‘I still consider myself to be a relatively young clinician, and people who have won are experienced and extraordinarily talented clinicians that I really couldn’t even be mentioned in the same sentence as.
‘It was really lovely recognition; one I’m humbled to receive and one that I felt very unworthy of.’
Dr Verma also viewed the award as ‘sustenance’ after the recent strains on general practice. While it is hard to see much denting his enthusiasm, he is no Pollyanna for general practice and believes compliance and financial demands need to be better addressed.
He is particularly worried to see talented contemporaries in their 30s leaving general practice for other areas of medicine and wants more done to prevent other good clinicians from putting the specialty in the ‘too hard basket’, as he puts it.
‘The value add of general practice is extraordinary, it’s so important and it’s unrecognised,’ he said.
‘It’s going to take a monumental shift for people to recognise that.
‘I’m hopeful that will happen. There is still a long way to go, but I’m really encouraged by the dialogue that’s happening about the importance of having GPs as the backbone of the healthcare system.’
In the meantime, Dr Verma remains focused on his day-to-day work, and sees his own general practice career stretching out for decades to come with colleagues he holds in high esteem.
‘Everyone is incredibly supportive of each other and happy to help out, not just with clinical advice, but with management advice,’ he said.
‘We’re all in it together, and they buy into the fact that we’re trying to provide really good care in often difficult circumstances.
‘It’s a really positive environment, and it makes you want to come to work.’
The RACGP 2023 national award winners will be announced on 25 October at WONCA.
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Dr Patrick Fergal McSharry   21/10/2023 10:57:46 AM

Thank you Dr. Verma . This is great to see from a "relatively young Clinician" as you say yourself. You hit the "nail on the head" for me (a" relatively old Clinician" : ) - but relativity is not absolute so we're both ok. So many positives are outlined above , only issue remaining is to change the narrative around "just a GP " , it's going to take a while but I'm inspired by your optimism .

Dr Abdul Ahad Khan   21/10/2023 1:36:52 PM

Enjoy your ' Honeymoon Period ' Dr. Verma !
You will soon find out many many Disappointments.
I have been a GP since 1976.
General Practice was very very Enjoyable in the 70s & in the 80s.
I have delivered Babies / looked after the Babies / looked after the Adolescents / looked after their Middle Ages / looked after the Aged, etc etc etc. - I was a FAMILY DOCTOR ' from the Cradle to the Grave '.
The RACGP is quite Comfortable with the slow erosion & the Annihilation of a FAMILY DOCTOR.
The RACGP feels that an MBBS with a few years of Rotating Hospital Internships, is not ' SAFE ' to let loose on the Community - these MBBSs are made to go through loops & loops of Hurdles / Obstacles .
On the other hand, the RACGP is comfortable with Non-MBBSs !!!
Are Non-MBBSs 'SAFE ' to replace GPs ???
The RACGP will do nothing to put a Stop to this, because their Paymaster is the Govt. of the day.
With the Indemnity Crisis years back, the AMA stood up for the Specialists.