FOR one 30-year-old medic, it was rheumatoid arthritis. For another, recently qualified, it was bipolar affective disorder. For yet another, it was a car accident that left him in a coma for 10 days and with severe speech impairment. Each was a life-changing bolt from the blue that left its victim reeling and facing an uncertain future. But for all of these medical professionals, help was at hand.
The Royal Medical Benevolent Fund was set up “for the relief of medical men and their families under severe and urgent distress occasioned by sickness, accident and other calamity”. In line with this remit, outlined nearly 175 years ago, it swung into action to provide practical aid in the aftermath of all three tragedies.
The result has been to offer each doctor the chance to put their lives on a more secure footing. In the case of the arthritic doctor, soon confined to a wheelchair, aid came in the form of a specially adapted vehicle, as well as financial support while he pursues further studies to help him get back into employment. The doctor with bipolar illness, unable to work, is receiving a weekly grant, travel costs and money advice, while the crash victim received money during the years of speech therapy and while he retrained, and has now secured employment in the sterile services unit at a local hospital.
Need not judgement
"Our role as a charity is to help those who are in need,” says Michael Baber, chief executive of the Fund, echoing the broad approach of the Fund’s original remit. “And my role is to make sure the Fund does what it was set up to do.”
In the last year alone, the Fund has provided support to 524 people, 216 of whom were doctors and 308 their dependants. In monetary terms, grants to the tune of £713,000 were paid out, while £70,000 was offered in the form of secured loans.
The age range of those helped varies from the very young, in the case of dependants of doctors, to the very old, and all cases of need are considered, from the ill to the infirm, and the debt-laden to the addicted (“How they got into need is not for us to judge,” says Michael). Once it is agreed that help will be offered, the type of aid is customised to the individual need.
“We’re trying to get away from an idea of a set amount of money, like another form of state benefit,” says Michael. “Our ultimate goal is to try and help people become financially independent again, that’s our aspiration.”
The help could be in the form of childcare to enable someone to commit time to retrain, or the Fund might pay professional fees, travel costs to attend interviews or perhaps pay for living expenses while a doctor works in an unpaid clinical attachment. “We’d rather spend more in the short term, help someone get back to work and then that frees resources to help new cases as they come through,” says Michael.
Of course, not everyone will make it back to work, and for beneficiaries who are elderly or seriously ill, the aim, he says, is to “make sure that their quality of life is as good as it can be and they can live as independently as possible”.
Time and money
Charity begins at home, the saying goes, and at the RMBF it really is the case that doctors are doing it for themselves. The bedrock of the Fund, the 240-strong army of volunteers, are either medical professionals or from medical families, as are most of the Fund’s trustees, each of whom serves a six-year term.
The volunteers, who are located across the UK, take on a variety of duties, including fundraising, visiting current or potential beneficiaries at home, raising awareness of the charity and providing feedback on the medical climate in their region or speciality. “We have a small staff team who are not doctors,” explains Michael, “and we need the doctors to move us in the right direction and keep us up-to-date. We need that medical input to do it properly.”
Medical input also comes in the form of the all-important donations to the Fund, since it was decided back in the 1930s that appeals for money would only be made within the profession. Michael’s tongue is only slightly in cheek when he describes the Fund as a kind of Robin Hood of the medical profession.
“We take from the… I won’t say rich… but the vast majority of doctors are going to have successful careers, be relatively well paid and are not going to need help from the Fund,” he says. “But equally some of their colleagues are going to fall by the wayside. So we go to those doctors who are successful and we say, ‘Well done, now please help those of your colleagues who are in much sadder circumstances.’ ”
As such, all the cash that keeps the charity afloat comes, one way or another, from doctors themselves or their families, whether it be from direct donations in response to the annual appeal, through local medical committees or through the speciality associations. “Some people very kindly leave legacies and some of that we can put aside as investments and that generates a small amount of income,” says Michael.
Originally set up in Manchester in 1836 as a benevolent arm of the Provincial Medical and Surgical Association (which later became the BMA), throughout its long history the Fund has adapted its focus to take account of the prevailing needs. During the Great War, for example, an emergency fund was set up, and this was repeated in World War II, this time in league with the BMA. In the interim, in response to the Depression, money was raised and specifically aimed at widows and orphans of medical practitioners to enable them to be self-supporting.
Today there are new pressures to contend with and the Fund must adapt to keep pace. Recent initiatives include offering specialist debt advice, helping those with a right to state benefits to secure their full quota, and help for refugee doctors retraining to practise medicine in the UK.
In addition, the Fund has launched a series of websites, for both doctors and medical students, which aim to address problems before they occur. The support4doctors.org website offers a wide range of advice, from choosing a speciality and managing stress to coping with being a patient yourself and even eating properly.
The money4medstudents.org site, was set up in partnership with the Medical Schools Council, the BMA Medical Students Committee and the National Association of Student Money Advisors after carrying out a lot of research into medical students’ perceptions of debt. “It’s in tune with how medical students are thinking,” says Michael, “otherwise you could do a website that is very worthy but is ignored.” And they are not planning to stop there. An initiative launched in July is looking at what the Fund’s response should be to the increasing numbers of doctors with mental illness (along with the armed forces, the profession has the highest levels of work-related mental illness in the UK), the potential vulnerability of the rising number of sessional GPs, and the increasing financial hardship faced by medical students.
The Fund has always been forwardthinking – it was, as Michael points out, “the first true charity for a profession” – and staying relevant is crucial to its role. “Over the years the Fund has always responded to the changing need,” he says. “So if now we help medical students, refugee doctors, doctors with addiction and mental health problems, that’s because those are the needs now.” For more information visit www.rmbf.org
Adam Campbell is a freelance writer and regular contributor to Summons. He lives in Edinburgh