Our Interview with Dr Kevin Barrett

Dr Kevin Barrett is a General Practitioner with a specialist interest in gastroenterology. Kevin is Chair of the Primary Care Society for Gastroenterology (PCSG) and Clinical Champion of the Inflammatory Bowel Disease Spotlight Project, supported by the Royal College of General Practitioners (RCGP) and Crohn’s and Colitis UK. We caught up with him to find out more about his career and his passion for raising awareness about gut health…


1. Can you tell us a bit about your career path, and why you chose to study medicine and ultimately become a GP? 

I don’t come from a particularly medical family, so this was something I chose to challenge myself with. I like the holistic approach one gets as a GP and the ability this gives us to help individual patients as well as contributing to the wider health system. Having that long-term relationship with families keeps GPs grounded and we know that each interaction we have with a patient is just one part of a journey, rather than a one-off fix-and-forget approach that can sometimes happen. I don’t have great manual dexterity or patience so specialities such as surgery were not an option for me.


2. What led to your interest in gastroenterology, and in particular your interest in Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD)?

My first jobs as a pre-registration house officer (now called an F1) were in colorectal surgery and then gastroenterology, so this had an influence. I was diagnosed with IBD (probably Crohn’s Disease although there are features of Ulcerative Colitis) in 2005 so I have my personal experiences to add to my medical ones. Gastroenterology is not one of the glamorous medical specialities, but it affects almost every aspect of our patients’ lives.


3. You recently directed a Spotlight Project in partnership with Crohn’s and Colitis UK to improve the detection of IBD amongst GPs, and support the management, treatment and referral of patients. Can you tell us a bit more about the project and what you achieved during the three years the project took place?

The Inflammatory Bowel Disease Spotlight Project was a partnership between the RCGP and Crohn’s & Colitis UK. The aims were simple – to raise awareness of IBD and to help GPs manage their patients effectively. We produced a toolkit www.rcgp.org.uk/ibd and an e-learning module www.elearning.rcgp.org.uk/ibd that contain educational materials for GPs to help them suspect, investigate and refer appropriately, and also to help their patients with established IBD who may be suffering a disease flare, as well as helping GPs give advice on nutrition, contraception, pregnancy, travel and medication. We managed to get IBD a higher profile in the updated GP training curriculum, spoke at numerous events across the UK to healthcare professionals, including a session on the main stage at the annual RCGP conference in Glasgow in 2018 and in 2019 we won the Clinical category at the RCGP annual conference in Liverpool for our co-designed flare pathway poster. We have helped increase the availability and use of calprotectin pathways by working with Academic Health Science Networks across England. As a legacy, we finished the project by producing a series of presentations and webinars that can be used as educational tools by healthcare professionals.


4. Do you think there is more that can be done to raise awareness about IBD amongst health care professionals? Are there any more projects on the horizon that you will be involved in?

Definitely - the RCGP doesn’t reach all GPs and we struggled to find regional champions in Northern Ireland and Scotland. We also realise that it is important to educate A&E doctors, community pharmacists, practice nurses and other staff working with patients who have IBD or symptoms that could be IBD. We are hoping to continue the work and use organisations such as IBD UK and the Primary Care Society for Gastroenterology to help raise awareness.


5. This week is Love Your Gut Week (21st – 27th September 2020). As a partner of Love Your Gut, how does the PCSG hope gut heath awareness can be brought to the attention of those working in primary care? What do you think can be done to encourage more people to talk about their gut health?

People can be reluctant to talk about their bowels and we need to break that taboo. Lower gastrointestinal symptoms are common (up to 1 in 5 people at any time can have significant symptoms) and while conditions like Irritable Bowel Syndrome are common, it is important to be aware that sometimes a change in our bowels can indicate bowel cancer, coeliac disease, IBD, or even ovarian cancer. By raising awareness and using patient stories to openly discuss our bowels we can help people get an appropriate diagnosis at an earlier time.


6. In recent years, research has suggested that there may be a relationship between the gut microbiota and IBD. Have you noticed a rise in patients wanting to discuss their gut microbiota or try therapies that target the gut microbiota?

Very much so. With the rise in social media and the interest in lifestyle medicine patients are keen for advice regarding ways they can use their diet, including pre- and probiotics to improve their symptoms and have a positive effect on their lives. There has been as small increase in patients interested in Faecal Microbiota Transplantation (FMT) but this is still seen as a niche area that requires more research. When patients ask about their gut microbiome this can be a good opportunity to discuss the impact of stress and the benefits of relaxation and physical activity too.


7. You recently took part in a virtual Run for Guts UK to raise money for Guts UK and Crohn’s and Colitis UK. What has been your favourite gut health fundraising event and why?

The Run for Guts challenge was fun as it brought together the whole IBD team and helped us bond and brought out our competitive sides! Since starting the Spotlight Project I was encouraged to start marathon running and wearing a charity vest (and sometimes a tutu) certainly helps get the crowd on your side and gives a huge psychological boost.


8. What does a typical working day look like for you? And how have you had to adapt during the COVID-19 pandemic?

As I take an immunosuppressant I’ve been working from home since March. My clinical days are spent on the phone or on video calls with patients, and my other roles are now spent taking part in virtual meetings rather than travelling. I miss the face-to-face contact with people and the opportunities for travelling that the Spotlight Project gave but I certainly don’t miss commuting!


9. What do you like to do in your spare time?

I use physical activity to give me mental and physical space. Running is my main pleasure, but I also like a mixture of Pilates, yoga, cycling, swimming and walking. My four teenage children keep me busy too. I have a long list of countries I would like to visit and running events that I would like to take part in once we are allowed to move freely again.


10. If you could give students one piece of advice, what would it be?

Work hard, take any opportunity to broaden your horizons, explore things outside your comfort zone, but don’t forget to look after your mind and body as it’s the only one you get.