Ayan Panja (Ha. 1986-91) is a GP, broadcaster, writer and educator who describes himself as an expert generalist. His book, The Health Fix, explores lifestyle-based interventions to improve your day-to-day health in a tailored and targeted way.
When you were at Brighton College, what did you want to be when you ‘grew-up’?
A singer or a writer.
Tell us about yourself now you've grown up.
I don’t think I’ll ever grow up! I’ve lived in St Albans for the last 18 years where I work as a GP partner. My wife is a psychiatrist and our children are 16 and 10. I have what is known as a portfolio career which involves the work of a GP partner along with broadcast, writing and medical education.
What about your life now would most surprise your Brighton College teachers?
That I stuck it out in one career for 30 years and counting. I was a restless and slightly inattentive soul at school… I am so lucky that my vocation has enabled me to explore other areas of work.
What are your favourite memories of your time at school?
Soooo many memories... made some lifelong friends. I loved the day-to-day stuff – both the ordinary and the special. Iced buns from the tuck shop for 20p, playing round-the-table in the JCR in Hampden, flying in a Chinook and doing aerobatics in Chipmunks with the RAF in Kent, the German exchange to Hamburg, the choir trip to Berlin, Saturday cricket matches, summer concerts, winning the house music competition, playing the piano and singing for the Icelandic ambassador’s visit and somehow getting lost every year on the sponsored walk all fill my memory banks with joy and laughter. Also grateful for some amazing teachers – Chris Hatcher and Nick Bremer in particular made a hard job look easy and really connected with students. It’s a cliché, I know, but I also won’t ever forget singing Jerusalem for the last time in chapel or the leaver’s ball.
What advice would you give to your school-age self?
Be yourself. Be compassionate. Do what you love and are good at. Have fun. You only live once.
What do you do as a career?
I went to medical school at Imperial after leaving Brighton. I did quite a lot of music there, chasing record deals and becoming social secretary as I was a bit nonplussed with medical school teaching and curriculum. I eventually ended up as a GP after falling in love with that kind of work as a student. General practice is about people, not just diseases. You can make such an impact in the community as a GP. You never get bored or quite know what to expect, and you are often trusted by people who are at their most vulnerable.
I also did a chunk of varied broadcasting work for the BBC from 2006 until 2016 and then drifted into well-being and lifestyle medicine after my own spell of poor health. I teach doctors on a course called ‘Prescribing Lifestyle Medicine’ and have just distilled some of my concepts down into a book designed for the public so they can learn the methods for themselves. THE HEALTH FIX is out on January 5th 2023. I also put out a weekly podcast called Saving Lives in Slow Motion which covers everything from invisible illnesses to impostor syndrome – what makes us human and how it can lead to ‘poor health’.
What does your work involve?
Despite perceptions, a GP’s work involves solving complex problems in perpetuity, but also connecting with people, understanding them, their needs and their stories. We offer cradle-to-grave care. I am lucky that I have been able to dip into the worlds of broadcasting, book writing, health PR and education along side the day job.
What are the most challenging parts of your job?
Every area of my work can be a challenge. GP partners are employers, budget planners, managers, doctors, mentors, teachers and advocates working with scarce resources and time constraints through a recruitment crisis. We quietly get on with a mountain of never ending work which is deceptively risky and complex. Often at the end of a 13-hour day there are 50 letters to read and action plus a load of reports and results to sift through. The days of a GP knowing someone and their family's stories and entire lives (which used to help GPs retain continuity and solve problems with joined-up thinking) are coming to an end, as experienced GPs leave the service through burnout or decide to retire early. I know how hard it is for patients as they struggle to access us given we are 8000 GPs short in England. It sounds OTT but GPs really are Clark Kent style characters who do two days of work in one and are largely taken for granted.
What are you most proud of?
It can be hard in public sector jobs to actually stop and think about what you’re proud of given the relentless pressure we work under. There’s no corporate sheen in the NHS.
Apart from my family, I am most proud of the fact that I have been able to sustain my career, which involves doing my best to help people, but have also turned my hand to many things to the highest professional standards. That includes penning articles and books, writing and editing scripts, putting on educational courses, presenting on TV, podcasting, advising on health PR campaigns, doing voiceovers and a lot more – all on top of the day job. In essence, I am most proud to be an expert generalist, something that is increasingly rare and not always valued in a society which is driving itself towards specialism. But can you imagine a world without generalists like Florence Nightingale, Jamie Foxx, Roald Dahl, Tim Spector or Bruce Forsyth?
What are the three objects you would take with you to a desert island?
Ooh that’s tough… presuming this doesn’t include basic survival kit or anything digital like a phone, I’d take a piano to help me discover the endless combinations of notes that are left to find in tunes that have yet to be composed, any book by William Dalrymple and a pen-and-diary set to write stuff down.
How would you like to be remembered?
Primarily as someone who was compassionate, helpful and full of integrity, whilst being wildly creative with arts, innovations and ideas.