Reflections from the not-so-grim North

Around a year ago, I wrote some reflections on my experience of the SAPC Annual Scientific Meeting. From my somewhat damp basement. It was something I really enjoyed, and a testament to the huge amount of hard work put in to organising it by colleagues in Leeds. This year, the conference was also in the North of England – this time in Preston. But more importantly – in real life.

Where to stay?

Accommodation was booked at the UCLan student halls of residence for the Monday and Tuesday night – at twenty-seven quid a night, how can you go wrong? Unfortunately, last minute rumours of motorway protests about the spiralling cost of fuel potentially disrupting my Monday morning rush hour journey necessitated an additional night’s accommodation on Sunday. I settled on the Marriott hotel. Think of it as “purposive sampling” of what the “grim north” had to offer. The journey was uneventful, albeit rather expensive from the petrol perspective.

I had a bit of a lie-in on Monday morning in my rather comfortable room. After eventually sauntering down to a nice buffet breakfast, I went for a swim in the pool. All conferences should start that way. Then it was off to work. This year’s ASM was the first face-to-face one in three years, so it was really exciting to be catching up with people I had not seen other than on Zoom calls for so long.

An enjoyable first day

After a quick hello to people at reception, first on the agenda was the HOD’s meeting. Not that I’m head of any department – I simply failed to step backwards quickly enough when someone asked for volunteers for the next chair of SAPC. The meeting reflected on various challenges – for me, this includes how academic primary care can increase its visibility and impact, how departments can maintain a sense of identity and collegiality despite altered patterns of working, and how we might foster an agenda of scholarship and better support clinical colleagues in the face of a workforce crisis. After clearing up those trivial issues, it was off to co-chair our Medicines Optimisation Special Interest Group, where we had an hour or so of constructive discussion on research priorities, generating enough ideas for about ten PhDs. There was a short break before the Helen Lester Memorial lecture, so I disappeared off to find my room. It’s fair to say this was not quite up to the standards of the Marriott, but the building appeared structurally sound, and there was the added bonus of a toilet roll and a bed with strange synthetic sheets and very lumpy springs. Remember – only twenty-seven quid. The evening lecture was delivered by Amy Russell from Leeds, who gave a great talk about the under-representation of marginalised populations in research, and in particular the issue of learning disability. It made me realise how we should all try much harder to ensure our academic work reflects the needs of the entire population. It is also really chastening to hear about the problems that some individuals face; I realised I needed to stop moaning about the cheap rooms.

A drinks reception followed, and there was a fantastic buzz as we caught up with some colleagues we had not seen properly since 2019. Richard McManus and Paul Little took the last two free bottles of beer, so many of us decamped to the local Vinyl Tap pub for more refreshments and reflections on what was an enjoyable first day.

What to do if you go to Starbucks and your name is Stjohn

Tuesday morning started with a welcome session hosted by Umesh Chauhan, the conference chair, including a welcome from “Dave” (UCLan’s Pro Vice-Chancellor), some messages of congratulations from colleagues at RCGP (this was our 50th annual scientific meeting, although there weren’t many balloons), and a little poetry reading from Oxford’s Sara McKelvie. The first plenary lecture was given by Kamlesh Khunti, with a talk about Covid which reminded us all of why we hadn’t been sitting together in a lecture theatre for so long. Melbourne’s Ruby Biezen then shared her AAAPC award-winning work with us on co-designing information sheets to support better antimicrobial stewardship in general practice, with clinicians in the audience particularly interested in how they could lay their hands on this great resource. And Jess Watson from Bristol closed the session with her NAPCRG prize work: a summary of an interview study on routine blood tests in primary care. “There were no examples of shared decision making”. A pretty bleak message for those of us who assume we’ve moved away from overly-paternalistic practice.

Short talks and hotpot

I attended an interesting parallel session on prevention and risk prior to lunch, covering a range of topics from chest pain to rheumatoid arthritis. Talks were shorter this year – only 6 minutes, with 4 minutes for discussion. I’m a little uncertain about having such as short period of time, although generally I thought presenters did an excellent job of cutting to the chase, and the time remained sufficient for some lively and interesting discussion. I particularly liked Nicholas Jones’ presentation on the use of face masks whilst exercising: partly because it reminded me of physiology experiments I did during my own PhD, partly because it made me think about people breathing their Covid virions on me when I was out cycling during the pandemic, and partly because it highlighted the diversity of research that SAPC members undertake. After some Lancashire hotpot for lunch, there was the usual conundrum of which of the range of very interesting parallel’s to visit. I spent the first session hearing about long term conditions, before heading to the final afternoon session on safer prescribing.

Umesh’s party

Tuesday evening’s entertainment was Umesh’s party – the conference dinner – and the fantastic setting of Preston’s Corn Exchange building did not disappoint. I found myself at a table with Paul Little, so was careful to hold on tightly to my beer. It was great to chat with old colleagues as well as meet new ones. One particular individual who was unfamiliar to most of us was the fabulous Dame Burley Chassis. She serenaded us with classics such as Goldfinger and Let it Go, forgetting only a handful of lyrics, and even managed to get in some serious words about academia and diversity. Some in the audience were unaware that her alter ego is as my co-chair of this esteemed organisation. The usual questionable uncool dancing followed, accompanied by the brilliant Soul Convicts, before I headed home with some mild tinnitus and a nagging anxiety that some individuals seem to think that I will be providing similar entertainment at next year’s ASM.

Not another Teams call?

Wednesday was a busy day, starting with me helping to co-chair (rather badly – sorry Steph) a further enjoyable session on long-term conditions. Given it was our 50th celebration, George Freeman then reminded us all about SAPC’s heritage, before we joined a joint session with our colleagues at the Association for the Study of Medical Education conference in Aberdeen. There was me thinking I was getting time away from more Teams meetings – but the session was great, including our own Joanne Reeve reflecting on scholarship and the generalist, and Hugh Alberti discussing the need for a culture shift in primary care education. The AGM swiftly followed, with a summary of some of the great work the Society has been doing, and fond farewells said to a number of key individuals (Carolyn - our chair, Jo - our treasurer, and of course Sue Stewart - our amazing secretariat for 20-odd years). The role of Chair was handed over to Duncan and I, before I dashed off to give a talk on continuity of care and prescribing at the final parallel session.


The conference closed with some great talks from our award winners, and as I returned to the car and set off back down the M6, I reflected on my brief time in Lancashire. Let’s be honest. Most people heading to Preston probably had somewhat pessimistic views on what to expect from a town that has struggled with the typical post-industrial decline of Northern England. But Umesh and his team really delivered, supported by the amazing talent that is the SAPC membership. It certainly lived up to its theme: Recovery and Innovation. I’m writing this over a week after the conference closed, but it’s still got me thinking what a fantastic community of academics I work with, and what brilliant stuff we can achieve when we get together. We clearly have to adapt to new ways of working, but it’s clear to me that meeting in the real world offers something that the online alternative never will. I await Brighton 2023 with anticipation.

Dr Rupert Payne, July 2022