Q&A with Dr. Lewis Potter, GP, Founder of Geeky Medics

By Gloria Onwuneme

Dr. Lewis Potter is a physician in Newcastle (UK) and the founder of Geeky Medics, the popular medical school revision website and app which include clinical skills videos and guidelines.

Dr. Potter obtained his medical degree from Newcastle University in 2012, before embarking on medical training. Between completing his foundation years and becoming a general practice trainee, he took on various hospital locum posts while developing the Geeky Medics business and became a NHS Clinical Entrepreneurship Fellow in 2016.

When did you first decide to become a doctor? Why?
It’s interesting—when I was younger, I actually wanted to be a vet. I was quite interested in animals and animal well-being. But by the time my school held an open day for universities, I had become quite interested in IT. The Internet was quite new at the time, and I’d spent my sixth form internship at the hospital doing IT. On asking some of the exhibitors, I was told I couldn’t do IT because I didn’t have the required GCSE subjects. They asked what else I liked, and I said I was quite interested in biology and science. They asked if I wanted to do research in a lab, which I wasn’t, and then they said, “What about being a doctor?” It just wasn’t something that I had properly considered it. I didn’t know anyone who was a doctor. I said that sounded good, and was told I needed to choose chemistry and biology at A-Level, which I did. Then I went from there. I hadn’t thought of myself as a doctor, but it kind of made sense once it was suggested to me.

How/why did you choose the medical school you attended?
I chose Newcastle Medical School because I wanted something that wasn’t too far away from home. I’d also heard that Newcastle had a good reputation for medical education in general.

What surprised you the most about your medical studies?
I realized suddenly that it was a very broad subject to start with. Actually seeing all these other people in my year group who were very talented was a little bit overwhelming. The way I’d learned to pass exams at A-level couldn’t be applied to med school. I didn’t do too well on my first exam, which was formative. I didn’t know how to apply the knowledge, so it was a bit of a rocky start, to be honest. But after the initial few months, I got the hang of things and actually started doing quite well.

What information/advice do you wish you had known when you were beginning your medical studies?
I didn’t know much about what the end job would entail. I didn’t have a full picture of what the job of a junior doctor was. I’m lucky because I quite enjoy the role of a junior doctor. But I know several colleagues I went to university with, who found that the job wasn’t a good fit for them at all.

What really surprised me was how all-encompassing the job is. Everything else has to take a back seat, whether that’s family, relationships, hobbies. My life was work, and everything else was seen as a distraction from work. At med school, you at least had blocks of free time, even on the days you were in. Once you start that job, there just isn’t that time.

Why did you decide to specialize in general practice?
I only just started general practice training this August. Before that, I did foundation years 1 and 2, whilst working on Geeky Medics, but not at the pace I would have liked. Following foundation years, I did locum jobs for 3 years, including some time working in Australia, to delay going into a speciality. Once I got off the training track, I was kind of resisting going back due to the fear of once again losing control of my schedule.

I did GP rotations as a student, and I’m quite a generalist in all things, whether it’s technology or medicine. I always tend to learn just enough to allow me to do something well and then move on. I get bored of things quite easily, so I felt like I would become disengaged with a niche specialty in the long term. GP is very broad and quite modular as a career. Year to year, you can swap out one piece for another: one year, you might do education, another you might do two years with incorporated days working in A&E. That flexibility made me feel that, in the long run, I’d be able to stay interested and engaged in the field.

Has being a junior doctor met your expectations? Why?
I did expect it to be busy, but I didn’t expect it to be as time-consuming as it was. In terms of patient contact and decisions, I knew it would be stressful, but I hadn’t realised how the decisions you make can eat into your personal life. Once you’re back home for the day, you sometimes ask yourself, “Did I do that thing?” and you call the ward to check, so you never really feel like you’re totally switched off from work.

What do you like most about being a junior doctor? Explain.
The ability to get to talk to lots of people every day, whether it’s the team surrounding you or the patient population. It’s a really social job, and you get to hear about lots of people’s lives every day. People open up so much to you when you’re a physician, and that’s a real privilege.

What do you like least about being a junior doctor? Explain.
I think sometimes the demands at work mean you can’t do the job as well as you’d like to. It’s often difficult to take that extra 10 minutes to chat to a patient about something. That’s what bothers me most at work: “If only I’d had more time, I could have improved the patient experience.”

This is especially true when it comes to just explaining a patient’s diagnosis, or addressing all their concerns.

What’s your typical work-week like?
So at the moment I work in an acute stroke unit in a hospital for three days a week. Two days of the week, I spend on Geeky Medics. I’ve become a part-time GP trainee as a fellow in the NHS Clinical Entrepreneurship programme. This means my training will take five years, as opposed to the usual three. It’s nice because you just do more rotations. They are of the same length as everyone else’s, but you do more. I’m getting to do OBGYN, pediatrics, psychiatry, oncology, and rehabilitation medicine. I can imagine myself having acute medicine as a special interest, which would let me work a few days a week in A&E. Medical education is important to me as well: the end goal for me is to become a GP with close links with the university.

Tell me more about how you started Geeky Medics.
I was a fourth-year student at Newcastle University, and at the time I was obviously a geek! I was always interested in tech throughout college and medical school. For instance, when the iPod touch first came out, it couldn’t connect to WiFi at universities at the time, so I had it hacked and installed the entire text version of Wikipedia database, meaning I could look up medical conditions without internet. In some ways I was basically looking for an excuse to have a website.

But I’d also noticed I was creating a lot of notes digitally at the time, and thought that as I was putting in all this effort to writing about glomerulonephritis, it would be cool if I could share that. There were a few medical notes websites out at the time, but the user interface wasn’t as clean as I thought it could be.

Alongside this, I registered the domain “Geeky Medics” for a podcast where geeky medics got together and chatted about tech. I recorded a pilot episode with a friend, listened to it the next day, and it was actually really bad. So I went back to the drawing board. I wrote a few articles instead, put up the site, and told a few friends about it. No one was really looking at it other than me.

Then I decided to record a few clinical skills videos, because I’d been looking for a few online, and most of them were behind paywalls, and of low-quality production value. I had a background interest in video editing and production from school. So I bought a camera and a mic and convinced two fellow med students to be in the video, one as a doctor and one as a patient. We recorded the cardiovascular and respiratory examination which I put up on YouTube and waited for views to start flooding in. But in reality, people didn’t tune in for quite a while. I then posted links on a few forums, but no replies came in for a month or two. Except one person who gave a bit of a pity reply saying “I’m really sorry no one else has replied, but I think it looks good”. Slowly, as I started to tell friends about it, they started to use it and spread the word, and then the views started to pick up. I kept producing content for the next few years. I’m not someone who’s very good at marketing; it’s not something that I feel massively comfortable with. Luckily, Geeky Medics didn’t need that.

I knew a bit about web development already, having done a few blogs. I was also a big fan of technology podcasts. With Geeky Medics, I started with WordPress as the content management system, which made things a bit easier. I would Google problems as I came to them, and would read the WordPress forum, along with other forums. Then random developers would help me out. I learned how to develop the site itself largely by asking for help along the way.

What do you like most about running Geeky Medics?
The community that’s developed around it: that’s what keeps me going day by day. We have a really engaged vibrant community of medical students, junior and senior doctors, nurse practitioners, and more. Lots of different people from several different countries email me to say “this was useful”, or “I’d like to write this”. I just find that amazing. For me, it was a little project, and now other people are using it, so I’m more than happy.

What do you like least about running Geeky Medics?
There’s obviously a lot of administration that goes along with running any kind of project or business. I find it frustrating, because I’m still doing everything in that domain, too. So I find it frustrating when I have to focus on business administration, when I really want to focus purely on content. I’m having to wear a lot of different hats in the business. As it’s growing, we have lots of contributors of content, so I certainly haven’t done everything. But I’m currently looking at creating specific roles for others to take some of the weight off me.

How does an involvement in medical education inform your clinical work?
From a knowledge point of view, it certainly helps. I’m constantly reviewing clinical-skills-related information. So I’m quite clued up on the proper way to do things and what clinical signs mean, even the obscure ones. I think it’s also useful to engage in projects like these, because you can apply the skills used to day-to-day problems on the ward. It helps me do simple things like create an improved hand-over document, or assist someone set up a website for patients with a particular disease.

To develop content, I use widely-known sources. For a skill like phlebotomy, the WHO website had useful resources. I also ask consultants and senior registrars within a field, because a lot of the clinical examination literature is not necessarily derived from hard evidence, and techniques are widely and heavily debated. Asking more than one person helps me try to meet a middle ground.

On average: How many hours a week do you work? How many weeks of vacation do you take?
In reality, I work on Geeky Medics in the evenings of clinical days, and on weekends too. So rather than the intended 60-40 divide for clinical training and Geeky Medics work, I’m spending 80% of the work week on Geeky Medics and 60% on clinical work! I have to keep on top of emails. Every day at lunch at work, I deal with emails and minor problems in the fifteen minutes. I’m always doing something that is Geeky Medics related, really, to the point where that’s just how I work.

I get annual leave with the job, and I do try to go on holidays with my partner, but I must admit I don’t ever fully switch off. It’s kind of a problem, because the job is never done. With the way smartphones work, you’re never really off work. I do try to get away; I find I have better ideas for the website, when I successfully take time away from it.

How do you balance work and life outside of work?
I often read and listen to tech-related audiobooks. I listen to a lot of podcasts; I personally recommend “This Week in Tech”. I occasionally go to the gym. Sometimes I do graphic design, because I find it quite relaxing.

What types of outreach/volunteer work do you do, if any?
There isn’t much time for anything else outside of clinical training and Geeky Medics. People email with questions about careers, about how to choose foundation jobs, or about how to start similar projects, so I try to give thoughtful replies.

From your perspective, what is the biggest problem in health care today?
Coming at it from a UK perspective, demand is really outstripping the supply of available staff. On a day-to-day basis, that’s very apparent in the hospital.

Where do you see medicine at large in five years?
I think medicine is undergoing really interesting changes at the moment. From a technology point of view, I think there’ll be a lot more remote medicine through video conferencing apps. The same goes for diagnostic medicine: radiologists reviewing scans, or GPs reviewing patients while they’re at their homes.

On the science front, people talk about personalised medicine, and with the cost of sequencing, that’s becoming more of a reality. It’s fast enough and cheap enough to justify doing it at a larger scale.

Where do you see medical education in five years?
To me, technology is an amazing amplification tool. You can amplify education through the Internet and have a far wider reach than you ever would as a teacher trying to fit people into a lecture theatre. Moving forward, the value of a physical presence will decrease and be less relevant, but the value that can be delivered online will be similar or better in a lot of instances.

There’s a lot of things where being present is better at the moment, such as learning clinical skills with a group of people. But I think as we move forward with things like augmented and virtual reality, the value of physical presence will be hugely affected. If you can get ninety five percent of the value without having to travel, it will change the model on which universities operate. Right now, the information delivery model at most universities is one-to-many in a lecture theatre, with everyone arriving at a specific time of day in the same place. We can compare this development to how television is being replaced by Netflix. People rarely feel the need to sit down at 9pm for their favourite show; they’ll just catch it when it suits them, because they get the same value out of it. Rather than showing up to a lecture when you’re tired and not really listening, on-demand education is going to be a bigger and bigger category. This will be helped by technologies’ increase in sophistication to allow for better experiences.

As I mentioned before, I definitely want medical education to be a big part of what I do moving forward. I understand the technology side of things, but I’m not so far removed from the restraints and difficulties in bringing in this kind of technology to education. At times, making things technological isn’t always good thing; it doesn’t solve all problems, and I don’t like when tech is used for tech’s sake.

What’s your final piece of advice for med students who want to pursue a diversified career?
People will often say that you need to do things the way that everyone else has done them before, and that you need to stay on the well-trodden path of training. Any suggestion that you’re going to step off that path or do something different may be met with discouragement or certainly not encouragement. But you need to just do it, because no one is going to give you a blueprint as to how to build your own ideal career. You need to understand what you’re going to be happy waking up to every morning. I really enjoy clinical medicine, but the thought of doing that full time and nothing else doesn’t interest me.

Take the steps to have the discussion with the training program about whether you can get less-than-fulltime training to pursue another passion or interest. It definitely is possible and I know lots of people who have managed to do this. Moving forward, the NHS, and healthcare in general, are a bit more accepting of the fact that people have other interests. Actually, having those interests make clinicians better at their job when they do come to work. They can bring the skills they’ve learned in other sectors and feed that back into healthcare.

Learn more about Geeky Medics here.

About the Author

Gloria Onwuneme is a Danish-born Nigerian who’s studying medicine at the University of Nottingham, UK. She has a strong interest in neurology and psychiatry, and a growing interest in healthcare innovation and medical entrepreneurship. In her spare time, she reads a lot, jogs sometimes, and she (thinks she can) write poems.