Former Royal Navy doctor and Portsmouth GP Dev Patel knew his life was spiralling out of control when he hardly saw his two young sons. So he quit the public sector, but used the skills acquired there to help rejuvenate his clients. Chris Owen reports.
This is a tale of what is fast becoming the scourge of the 21st century – how to achieve a meaningful balance between life and work. In that order.
How, in these days of swingeing budget cuts, reduced staffing levels and ever-growing expectations of the workforce, it is possible to be successful at home and at work. In that order.
Dr Dev Patel twice thought he had achieved his professional ambitions, but on both occasions realised the price was becoming too high.
In a comment which will ring alarm bells with so many parents, he says: ‘I was leaving home in the morning before the children had got up and was coming home after they’d gone to bed.
‘I was missing the bedtime routine and was becoming a stranger to my two sons.’
So first he sacrificed a successful career in the Royal Navy, then another as a GP in Portsmouth.
Today he must be one of the few former Surgeon Lieutenant-Commanders trained to treat battlefield traumas who now devotes his time to making people happier in their skin.
But if it had not been for the stresses of public sector life in the navy and then in general practice at Drayton, Portsmouth, he readily admits he would not have acquired the skills to set up a successful business in Southsea – a joint enterprise with wife Nishal. He looks after your face, she does feet.
The 39-year-old former Portsmouth Grammar School pupil joined the naval section of the school’s combined cadet force and the seed was sown. ‘I liked the idea of being in uniform,’ he laughs.
But also instilled into him was a deep sense of public duty. It came from his father Ramesh, a well-known former GP in Buckland, Portsmouth, who launched a medical service for the homeless.
‘My father always told me not to forget who puts the bread on your table – you must always give back to your community and your country.
‘And I never forgot him telling me, when I was trying to decide between a medical and naval career, that even the presidents of the USA are treated by naval doctors.’
Dev qualified as a doctor from Guy’s and St Thomas’s Hospital in 2000 and joined the navy as a medical officer the following year.
In 2008 he was posted as Senior Medical Officer to the medical centre (sick bay in naval parlance) at Whale Island.
He had just arrived when he was told of a plan to close the practice and for the medical centre at HMS Nelson to serve both sites. With just two weeks’ notice and his boss on holiday, Dev was told he had to run a management event to assess the efficiency, effectiveness and viability of the centre.
‘That was the steepest learning curve I have ever experienced,’ he recalls. ‘The centre was closed for a week while we assessed the economics.
‘In the end I did a presentation to senior officers and not only was it decided the Whale Island medical centre should remain open, but it was given a £1.4m grant to fund it.
‘This was my first taste of business and, although it was a nerve-racking experience, I enjoyed it and felt proud of what I’d achieved, although not a day passes when I don’t wish I was still in the navy.’
Dev’s six-year commission was extended twice with promotion and his last two years of service were spent in Gibraltar as deputy principal medical officer. He retired in 2010 as a Surgeon Lieutenant-Commander.
He adds: ‘The time was right for me to leave. I had two young children and a wife and the next two years would have meant being deployed for long periods of time on big ships and in Afghanistan.
‘I wanted to settle down into family life with them.’
So although he avoided the long seaborne and foreign postings, he jumped from the frying pan into the fire and in August 2010 joined The Drayton Surgery as a GP and partner, taken on partly because of the business acumen he had displayed by saving that Whale Island medical centre.
‘When I joined the sum given to practices was dropping by about 10 per cent a year and demand was growing with the very elderly Drayton population.’
Every few months he and the other six GPs at the practice realised they were working longer and harder.
Dev says: ‘I was working 12 to 14 hours a day straight. ‘‘Straight’’ means not stopping at all for breaks.
‘I could have done the hours had they not been so intense and that’s what’s driving a lot of people out of general practice. It’s reached unsafe levels.
‘I was trying to see between 20 and 30 patients in a morning. The highest was 42. By midday you’d be mentally dead because you simply can’t process all that material.
‘Take a patient who’d come to me complaining of headaches. If they went to hospital, excluding waiting time, they would get 30-40 minutes of assessment, a blood test and a scan. If I did that with just five per cent of patients who came in with a headache I’d break the NHS.
‘And remember, if you miss a diagnosis it could be the end of your career.
‘There’s always a no-win-no-fee solicitor waiting for you to make that mistake.’
Gradually the pressures increased. ‘I was working 14-hour days and seeing my children much less than when I was in the navy. Some weeks I would kiss them goodnight on Sunday evening and then not see them awake again until Wednesday evening.
‘I just had to change my life and refocus on the reasons I left the navy.’
He left Drayton in March last year, although he still works as a locum one day a week, and bought premises in Winter Road, Southsea, to set up Perfect Skin Solutions in tandem with Nishal. And now? ‘I try to close the clinic by 6pm and am home to spend time with the children, have dinner with them and tuck them up in bed.
‘I know I made the right decision.’
Battling eyelid drop
It is said the eyes are the window to the soul, but sometimes puffiness and drooping eyelids can make you feel as if you want to close the curtains.
Dr Dev Patel says: ‘Your eyes can age you if there is any dropping or lines.’
To combat this his Winter Road, Southsea, clinic has bought a Plexr machine, primarily used for eyelid drop.
Regarded as non-invasive surgery, the machine uses the ionisation of the gases in the air to form plasma which creates a small electrical arc that treats problem areas.
‘Some people are scared about surgery, but this doesn’t involve any knives,’ says Dev.
‘It doesn’t touch the skin. It sends out an electrical arc that does touch it and then it produces a little scab. It forces the skin to contract and you see results almost straight away.’
The whole thing takes about an hour. ‘It means you don’t have a day in hospital,’ says Dev.
‘The machine is also good for acne and can also help scars to heal. It rejuvenates the skin.’
Dev’s interest in dermatology started at Haslar and St Mary’s hospitals in Gosport and Portsmouth in 2005 when he was in the navy and part of his general practice training.
‘There were opportunities back then for me to do some aesthetic work, but I was wary. I thought ‘‘why on earth do I want to play a part in making people look strange?’’.
‘Now I realise there are non-surgical ways of working with the skin which mean you don’t look strange, just gradually different.
‘So many of my clients come back to say their relatives and friends have just told them they look well.’