Interview with Richard Blackledge: How ‘solid advice’ is the key to a healthier city for Sheffield GP

Marion Sloan
Marion Sloan
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Marion Sloan’s life as a GP is a family affair.

The Sheffield doctor works with her sisters Linda and Barbara at Sloan Medical Centre in Heeley, her parents were general practitioners from when the role was first created in 1947, while two of her daughters are in medicine, too - albeit veterinary care.

When I was a teenager everyone smoked, men died at 65 and women died at 70. The improvement in health has been fantastic

“I’ve seen a lot of change, but all for the better,” says Dr Sloan, who has been a GP for 38 years.

Despite worries over NHS cuts and funding pressures, the medic is optimistic about the health service’s future, providing ministers and clinicians are prepared to think differently.

“Health is a very exciting place to be. And there’s plenty of money in the system. If we just work a little bit smarter and embrace technology, and if we use the money in new and innovative ways, we will get there.”

Dr Sloan explains she has maintained a key philosophy throughout her decades seeing patients.

“I’ve always had an interest in women’s and sexual health. It underpins the community. If relationships and women’s health are strong, then it’s just good for the city.”

But the doctor believes dispelling a number of persistent myths would vastly improve females’ wellbeing.

“Nobody gets proper health education, full stop. Lots of women know what they know from reading magazines and talking to friends.

“It’s really difficult to get some middle of the road, solid advice.

“Another problem is that GPs are a bit bowed down at the moment. They’re maybe not as chatty as they’ve been in the past.”

She cites worrying figures that show a quarter of Sheffield women do not go for smear tests.

“The most important person to reach is someone who has never had a test. I think they’re just scared, and think it’ll hurt, or be embarrassing or invasive.

“Younger women are important to reach, too. Many get to 25 and just think ‘No, I’m not going for that’. If they don’t come for the first one, chances are they won’t come for the second or third.

“The virus slowly incubates and 15 years down the line they’ve got full-blown cancer, it’s spread and by then it’s far too late.”

Dr Sloan says people are ‘fearful’ about symptoms they believe could point to something sinister.

“They Google it and scare themselves silly.”

Conversely, sobering tales such as the death of reality TV personality Jade Goody, who lost her life aged 27 to cervical cancer in 2009, can have a positive effect.

“Lots of people crawled out of the woodwork. It did a lot of good for the smear programme.”

Meanwhile there is a misguided view that HIV ‘isn’t a problem anymore’, she says.

Older, heterosexual women are increasingly being diagnosed as they seek new partners online, Dr Sloan reveals, adding: “Because contraception’s not an issue people don’t use condoms.”

She admits that doctors can be at fault by failing to consider HIV as a diagnosis.

“You might have been to a GP up to seven times before someone thinks ‘Let’s do a test’.”

Women do not need to see doctors for chlamydia testing - checks are freely available at clinics - while family doctors have stopped offering pregnancy tests on cost grounds, unless there are concerns for a patient’s health, Dr Sloan continues.

Cystitis, too, can also be readily dealt with by pharmacists rather than doctors.

A further myth is that women should only begin taking folic acid - which makes a baby’s neural tube close in the womb, preventing spina bifida - when they become pregnant.

“As soon as you stop using contraception, start using folic acid. It’s only water-soluble - a healthy, friendly vitamin. The neural tube closes on day 25.”

Women should also begin thinking about preventing osteoporosis well before they reach middle age.

“To get the maximum bone density, it starts in the teenage years. Eat plenty of calcium and vitamin D and get out in the sunshine.”

Hormone replacement therapy - prescribed to menopausal women to relieve symptoms - delays the erosion of bone density, she accepts.

“But as soon as you come off it, it drops to where it was. And you’ve got to come off it at some point.”

However, HRT is ‘not dangerous’ to take, Dr Sloan maintains, and the advantages outweigh the small risks of cancer and other illnesses.

“If you fall and break your wrist that’s bad news, especially with older ladies. If you break your hip, that’s it - loss of independence.

“And it’s very difficult to come back from that.”

Dr Sloan is married to husband Paul Henstridge, who teaches physics at Chesterfield College. They have three daughters - Catherine and Helen, who are both vets, and Elizabeth, an actor who appears in the US television series Agents of SHIELD.

She is aged 65 but ‘does not want to retire’.

“There’s too much work to do. When I was a teenager everyone smoked, men died at 65 and women died at 70. There weren’t any old people! The improvement in health has been fantastic. I think it’s brilliant.”

However, Sheffield still struggles with stark inequality, the GP reflects.

“Whatever the measures, the outcomes are worst in deprived areas. It’s very difficult.

“If you compare someone’s health in Heeley, where I work, with someone else in Dore, you’d see a clear difference.

“Public health do a good job - but the people who listen to their messages are often the worried well.”

Dr Sloan’s advice on a weighty issue

Obesity remains a scourge of women’s health, with 60 per cent of Sheffield females classed as weighing too much, says Dr Marion Sloan.

Cancers of the colon, breast, ovary and oesophagus, as well as heart disease and diabetes, are all linked to being overweight.

“It will catch up with them eventually. The incidence of cancer would improve if people were within a normal weight range. Obesity does other things, too - it puts blood pressure and cholesterol levels up.”

Exercising for 40 minutes every day - or even 20 minutes, three times a week - is considered beneficial. Walking, cycling and swimming are recommended.

“Heart disease affects women just as much as men, especially after the menopause. It’s a killer. And it’s a lifestyle thing that’s so intertwined with risk factors.”

And the message is clear on smoking, the doctor says.

“Cigarettes are bad news.”