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We must not be afraid of discussing the consequences of having more female GPs

Stories that quoted me out of context ignore the fact I am a staunch supporter of women’s right to work, writes Anna Soubry

As a mother with experience as a journalist, barrister and  politician, I know the last thing working women need is criticism from their own. So I was saddened to see a few words from more than an hour of nuanced and wide-ranging debate in Parliament used to paint me as a critic of female doctors.

Nothing could be further from the truth. I know from my own experience in male-dominated industries that working mothers face a tough choice between career and family. It’s a never-ending tasks to keep all the balls in the air.

As a child I saw first-hand the difficulties my own mother faced as she worked as a radiographer in the 1950s and -60s raising three children. Back then, working women with children were not supported at all and they had to fight for every little concession, even while they were paid less than male colleagues for doing the same job.

Today women working in the health system have better rights, but it’s no less difficult for them to exercise their rights. That is why they should be supported and championed and why we have taken action to encourage more women clinical leaders and are working across the NHS to encourage better flexible working.

That said, as custodians of an NHS under pressure we also need to acknowledge what all organisations must: that flexible working arrangements need to be managed careful to suit both staff and their employers. Meeting women’s needs as mothers can exist alongside the needs of any business; it just requires careful and honest thought to make it work. Of course flexibility can have an impact on the business, but there’s no excuse for not finding ways of making it work.

I’m not the first person to comment on this issue in relation to female doctors. Even the head of the RCGP, Dr Clare Gerada, has pointed out that we need more GPs to support part-time working. A sentiment we fully agree with, which is why we’ve pledged more training places for GPs, with 50% of students training for general practice by 2015. Having a frank and open debate about those obvious tensions does not amount to criticism. And it does not somehow suggest a failure to support women in that position.

This country has a proud history of giving women and mothers important rights in the workplace, so we mustn’t shy away from discussing the consequences now for fear of being politically incorrect.

Anyone who knows me knows the last thing I am is a slave to the PC brigade. Attempts to create faux controversy risk undermining the detailed and thorough Parliamentary debate necessary in a democracy. It risks reducing any discussion of important issues to bland and safe soundbites - again, something I’m not known for - but it’s not going to stop me or any of my colleagues honestly discussing the important issues which come before us.

The peril of speaking my mind is that people can sometimes attribute outlandish statements to me  - even when these short quotes fail to reflect what I actually believe. I hope the hard working female doctors of this country see beyond the headlines and recognise I was not trying to criticise them. In fact they have my full support.

Anna Soubry MP is the parliamentary under-secretary of state for public health.

Readers' comments (12)

  • Bob Hodges

    Whilst no one will despute that doctor gender is THE most important issue in workforce planning, and that politicians should be encouraged 'to speak their mind', the elephant in the room that this is a symptoms of political control of the NHS.

    It doesn't take a genius to conclude that if ANY country could get work force planning right, it would be a country with a state run integrated health service and teaching hospitals - i.e. the UK.

    Females were already forming the majority of the medical student body when I started medical school in 1994 under the last Tory government.

    Whilst in someways I applaud Ms Soubry from broaching the issue, it's been a long time coming and it reflects very badly on all politicans. Could the fact it takes 5 years to train an undergraduate and a further 5 years post graduate training to get an autonymous doctor, still be making this issue too much of a long term one for politicians with their 5 year parliaments.

    Another reason to remove Westminster and politicians from anything of any importance?

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  • So who on earth is responsible for workforce planning in the NHS and why is there no evidence of forward planning or thinking about what our needs are for the future?

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  • The number of training places etc is all totally moot. Ms Soubry's party, in record time, has made General Practice such an awful place to work that we will see doctor shortages and recruitment crises regardless of the number of training places. Additionally, pandering to non-urgent demand and nonsense like 24h responsibility makes GP a less family friendly place.

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  • I was saddened to see your perfectly valid and understandable comments pilloried by some, through ignorance, and by others, for political gain. Although female GPs are quintessential and totally indispensable , purely in average hours available to work, roughly at least 2 female GPs are needed for every 1 male GP to cover about 80% of an average full time GP career to retirement, after taking into account sick leave, maternity and paternity leave, and early retirement. Therefore on average approximately 1.25 Male graduates or 2.5 female graduates will provide the total hours of 1 GP to the average retirement age. Or for every male GP replaced you need at least two female GPs to cover the same number of hours worked. Therefore I believe that you were correct and should be admired for not being afraid to raise this debate.

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  • facts are facts,and that is all there is to it.don't shoot the messanger

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  • I agree, we need to recognise that women tend to work part time especially during family years. Despite Anna's assertions she is pro women she needs to lobby her government to improve the offering of the General Practice workplace. It is currently so poor that many women I know are simply not going back after children because the stress is too high. University fees have meant that this generation often have wealthy backing to face the high debt, they have often married successful individuals in other walks of life and so decide to bin the less well paying, more chaotic hours, life disrupting career of the two - medicine - and never go back... what a waste! With many of the over 50s leaving as well the outlook is bleak - when is someone going to realise we can't have an all singing all dancing health service on a shoe string, with unhappy staff.

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  • I agree we need to address the issues but many men are working "part-time" now, especially those who are newly qualified. We need to address the workload issues - "part-time" is often 35-40 hour week and a "full-time" is often 50+ hours a week. "part-time" working needs to be address rather than the sex of the doctor

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  • The burden that will be faced is the horrific slash and burn the Tory led government is currently inflicting upon the NHS. This burden is going to destroy the NHS regardless of the gender or full time status of any doctor far sooner than any workforce planning can make any difference.

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  • I totally agree that it is both sexes who are now working part time, especially those who are newly qualified. There are reasons for it - the government need to stop just focussing on A&E (where conditions are also bad) and think of other specialities like General Practice where people are just not working because conditions are so stressful.

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  • Who is there at 7 am and who is still there at 7pm - who does QOF and QP - who has a vision about practice development - who rolls up their sleeves when the partners kids get ill - case rests m'lord

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