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GPs go forth

The dreaded words: 'Mum, I want to be a doctor'

Dr Kate Harding

kate new


Obviously, because I am a mother, much of my waking life is spent worrying about my children. This tendency was hardly helped by being widowed 18 months ago. And, recently, the baseline level of anxiety to which I have long been accustomed took a dramatic upward trajectory when my teenage son made the announcement that many medical parents dread: ‘Mum, I’m thinking of doing medicine when I leave school’.

I suppressed an expletive, and, as so often before, attempted to appear calm and unruffled in the face of a potential crisis. And, in fact, the conversation that ensued was a salutary reminder of the pros, as well as the cons, of a career in medicine. I had to admit to him that few jobs could match it in terms of having a reason for getting out of bed in the morning. That the rewards are immense. That there is nothing like the feeling of having helped someone, in however small a way, even if their problem can’t be magically solved overnight, or indeed at all (an important caveat to throw in, just in case he decides on general practice).

We then came to the cons. Where to begin? Jake lost his anaesthetist father to suicide, as some of you will know. Richard died mainly because of the effects of work-related fatigue on a background of depression triggered in part by his first GMC complaint (despite being fully exonerated from any wrong-doing). I hardly needed to remind him of the risks to his emotional health and even to his life of choosing medicine as a profession. Most of us, of course, survive our doctoring, and many of us even thrive as medics. But is it any wonder many of us balk at the prospect of our children following in our footsteps, knowing what we know about what awaits them in the years to come?

I was, in short, the proverbial lamb going to slaughter

When I went to medical school, I was 17 years old. I had grown up in Brussels, knew virtually nothing about the NHS, and hadn’t set foot in a hospital since birth. My parents were linguists, and I knew no doctors. I had no work experience in any health-related field. I had, of course, done what little research was possible in 1987, prior to the days of Google and the internet, but that was necessarily limited. I was, in short, the proverbial lamb going to slaughter.

I will never forget the early, largely incomprehensible lectures in embryology, histopathology and anatomy, the complete mystification I felt, the feeling of having made the biggest mistake of my short life to date. In time, patient contact began, we left embryology behind. I began to see a point to it all, I stuck with it. It was only as a junior doctor, however, that the harsh reality of my career choice dawned on me. I would have to live with my mistakes, as well as my triumphs. Medicine would, now and again, involve harming people, as well as helping them. Sometimes, the harm would be very obvious. Sometimes, it would be invisible, and I could only guess at it.

How to communicate that to a 15-year-old? Is it fair to even try? He has, after all, grown up with two medical parents. He has witnessed many dinner-time conversations about our work, heard us share our anxieties about difficult decisions, ethical dilemmas, clinical challenges (what a loss that has been, no longer having Richard as my sounding board at the end of my working day!) Just as his sister and I do, he lives every day with the consequences of the letter from the GMC that changed the course of our family life forever. What else can I possibly tell him about the dark underbelly of medicine?

So, all that is left to do is encourage him, try to manage my own fears on his behalf, and remind myself that medicine remains a varied, stimulating, secure career full of opportunites, despite its considerable downsides. Anyway, let’s not forget that he might not get the grades that he needs - surely all I need to do is invite him to spend (even) more time on his PlayStation! Problem solved. I feel more cheerful already.

Dr Kate Harding is a locum GP and hospice doctor

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Readers' comments (22)

  • Cobblers

    I was relieved when both my daughters decided not to do medicine despite being bright enough. They said they remembered the nighttime calls before the Co-op and when they worked at the surgery with the punters.

    Part of me was disappointed but mostly I thought they had dodged a bullet. Nowadays they think the same, what with the Horlicks the Government is making of the NHS.

    But whatever you think, be mindful of Philip Larkin's admirable poem "This Be The Verse". A must read for any wannabe parent.

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  • He sounds like a wonderful kid. But tell him that There are easier ways to have a good quality of life, good income and emotional reward than public servitude in the NHS. I suggest dentistry, or interior design. Good luck to him whatever he does, but tell him to steer clear of GP partnership

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  • Protect him from the destruction that is the NHS. Made worse by CQC, RCGP, APMS sham, govt incompetence and vitriol. If it’s about helping people there are dozens of better ways to help people and avoid the worried well and the “I get what I want” brigade.

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  • I still secretly want one of my children to do medicine.

    It's a wonderful job. That's why we all do it. It's the NHS that's not so hot.

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  • If your son is smart enough to be a doctor he is smart enough to do something worthwhile. One of my boys said he wanted to be a doctor. It was like telling me he thought he had cancer. I suggested he do some aptitude tests. These clearly indicated that he would hate medicine and now he is a mathematician. He dodged the bullet. Good.

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  • Become a doctor. Just leave the UK as soon as you qualify to somewhere that appreciates, respects and looks after doctors. Not the GMC. Not the NHS. Not the UK.

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  • If he does decide to go to medical school you must support him by helping him research training posts outside of the UK whilst he is at university.

    Most do not leave the UK until after F2 but you can actually leave after F1 once gaining full registration.

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  • Kate , I have followed your story since your piece in the National press . A truely harrowing piece .None of my Kids wanted to be Doctors because they saw the toll it took on me working 10-11 sessions a week as a GP Partner for 26 years If your son wants to be a Medic ensure you can try to support him . I did Medicine because my School ( a really bad secondary modern ) said I was too thick to do it !! . For me I am now Happy in medicine albeit working at my terms 3 sessions a week . There is a 50% chance of being reported to the GMC and I've been there . It was thrown out but I recall the same feelings perhaps Richard had been experiencing before he took his life . I still get flashbacks from that time but am trying to practice Mindfulness . Good luck to you and him . There's plenty of time for him to change his mind !! Medicine can be a very satisfying job if you have good support at work and don't do it for too many hours a week!!

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  • @Shabi
    The NHs is not the problem
    The dirtbag politicians who are running it into the ground for their own nefarious gains are the problem.

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