This site is intended for health professionals only

At the heart of general practice since 1960

Women GPs aren’t hurting the NHS – but old-fashioned views continue to undermine our contribution

Professor Meirion Thomas’s diatribe against female colleagues shows some parts of the profession still need convincing that women doctors can work just as well as men, argues Dr Sara Khan

Last week there was uproar in some parts of the medical profession, after the prominent surgeon Professor J Meirion Thomas wrote an article in the Daily Mail titled, ‘Why having so many women doctors is hurting the NHS: A provocative but powerful argument from a leading surgeon’.

He described the feminisation of the medical workforce, arguing that it was having a ‘negative effect’ on the NHS and claiming that ‘most female doctors end up working part-time — usually in general practice — and then retire early’. In the same breath he claimed he was a feminist.

When I read Professor Thomas’s article, I can’t deny I felt outraged. I’m currently on maternity leave, and when you spend all day with a nine-week old baby you have a lot of thinking time. I felt disappointed that a professor from my alma mater, Imperial College, appeared to be so out of touch and yet felt confident enough to voice his old-fashioned views in a well-known newspaper.

It is demoralizing to think that there could be many doctors with a similar lack of understanding of the changing culture and the efforts to achieve equality – and I wonder what the patients who read his opinions think?  

‘In general practice, part-time working and job-sharing have an effect on patients,’ he wrote. ‘They can deprive them of continuity of care, which is the service they most value.’

Professor Meirion Thomas is right, of course, that female doctors do take time out to have babies and some opt to work part-time. However, women should not be penalised for this, just as men are not penalised for opting to go into private practice or for pursuing managerial posts, which likewise reduce their clinical commitments. The last time I checked, it’s only women who can have babies! I work part-time with respect to my clinical sessions (six a week), but combining this with my management responsibilities as a partner, as well as my work within medico-politics and commissioning, is extremely demanding. If I did more than this, I would burn out.

With European Working Time Directives in place it is impossible to provide absolute continuity of care to patients both in primary and secondary care.

However, there are systems in place to ensure patient safety and good standards of care, and these are always being improved and refined. My patients feel they get continuity of care and, while I will take six months out this year to have my first child and look after him, I hope they are satisfied with the locum I have employed to temporarily take my place. I don’t feel I am short-changing the NHS if I take 12-18 months maternity leave over a 40-year career.

It is well recognized that having women as part of the mainstream workforce is a key to the success of organisations. Those that provide flexibility in their workforce planning retain the talent pool of women and reap the benefits.

The changes in the medical workforce that Professor Meirion Thomas describes have been recognised for a long time, and creative solutions are needed. He suggests that we need to persuade women to ‘lean in’, using Sheryl Sandberg’s phrase (which I wrote about in Pulse last year), but the MWF and countless other organisations have already been supporting women to do this for years.

A change in culture

Professor Thomas’s concerns about the cost effectiveness of training women to work as GPs suggests a lack of ability to work as a member of a wider team of the NHS and sadly shows a lack of respect to fellow healthcare professionals. Given that the NHS is currently under attack as evidenced almost daily in the British media, it would be nice to see some solidarity rather than such negative views.

I’m pleased to be a member of the Medical Women’s Federation, which seeks to ensure that support is available at all levels of training for women in the medical profession and to enable women to achieve their desired outcomes and overcome any obstacles.

It is vital we support women doctors so that their potential is fulfilled. We know there is evidence of a lack of women at senior levels, and Professor Thomas has clearly shown that we need a change in culture so that there is diversity across specialties and within leadership.

Please can we remember: it is 2014. The female of the species isn’t going anywhere.

Dr Sara Khan is a GP in Hertfordshire and edits the MWF’s magazine, Medical Woman. She is also vice chair of the Watford and Three Rivers locality of Herts Valley CCG, and vice chair of Hertfordshire LMC. You can tweet her @DrSaraK

Readers' comments (24)

  • 'I will take six months out this year to have my first child and look after him.'
    Can a male take the same amount of time off in paternity leave? If not, why not?. why does your understanding of 'equality' seem to only go one way?

    Unsuitable or offensive? Report this comment

  • 20% of female doctors never work after the age of 34!!

    Unsuitable or offensive? Report this comment

  • Being a quality GP needs an active nurtured empathic brain. Being a professor and a surgeon may require different personal qualities.

    If there is a plentiful supply of women (or men) out there who can, with all the personal qualities needed, work 10 sessions a week successfully for 45 years without any family or other commitments then there may be some mileage in preventing any person that wishes to pursue a healthy balanced life from becoming a GP.

    Back in the real world it would be more useful to engage well balanced GPs rather than alienate.

    (P.S. why would any self respecting individual want their name put to an article in the Daily Mail?!)

    Unsuitable or offensive? Report this comment

  • To anonymous at 11.38
    As most female GPs are self employed as partners or locums and most areas do not now get maternity payments for partners men could take the time out if they didn't want to get paid!
    The argument for equality is not necessarily one to be made here, but the argument for presenting a united front as doctors is. How can we expect others to stop attacking our profession when members of it don't.

    Unsuitable or offensive? Report this comment

  • You may not agree with Professor J Meirion Thomas but there is hell of a lot of support out there for his views.It will be wrong to dismiss him as an old male chauvinist pig.

    Unsuitable or offensive? Report this comment

  • I think anon at 11.38 raises a very valid point. The reason women are being scapegoated is because we are still living in a society which is unequal. Maternity/paternity leave is not shared, men are often still the breadwinner and it is unusual for a professional couple to opt for the female to work more hours than the male.

    That said, it is now almost universally accepted that more than 7-8 sessions a week as a GP is prime fodder for sending you to an early grave. This shouldn't be about men or women. This should be about how we can provide a service with increasing numbers of GPs opting for a portfolio career in order to preserve their sanity and work until 70 as the government seems to expect of us.

    I am a female breadwinner but I still dropped to 6 sessions a few months ago in order to start enjoying being alive again.

    Unsuitable or offensive? Report this comment

  • My GP is a working part time mum. By "part time" I mean that she works 3 very VERY long days, juggling the demands of her patients, her practice and her CCG. Not only is she an amazing GP but also she is incredibly sympathetic to the pressures that other modern families are under and looks at our health and well-being from a holistic and realistic viewpoint. (as an aside, I'd also like to point out that one of the other parters in our GP practice is also a part-time GP as he is a WORKING FATHER)

    Unsuitable or offensive? Report this comment

  • When I started training in 1962 only a third of the intake was female. As pre-reg houseman we had to be available 120 hours a week, male or female. I did Sessional work [no superan or holiday pay], ultimately became a GP partner, much of the time as a part-timer doing 40+ hours a week [and of course on-call work too], and brought up 2 sons, mostly as a single parent. When I started out there were NO concessions made either by the powers that be or male colleagues in thjs 'caring' profession. I retired at almost 67, and consider I've paid my dues! I don't think anyone lost out.

    Unsuitable or offensive? Report this comment

  • Vinci Ho

    You see in a time of history when global economy was poor and resources were thinner , there is always a risk of some very right wing ideology creeping back into the main stream. History repeats itself many times.
    At the end of the day , are we still respecting each other as colleagues and human beings ? Somebody obviously thinks denigrating our female colleagues can raise one's profile even higher.......

    Unsuitable or offensive? Report this comment

  • We have to embrace what we have and work with it.
    Better work force planning taking working patterns of both sexes in to consideration .
    For patients it would be better to have people working
    In job shares so there is a degree of continuity and line of responsibility .

    Unsuitable or offensive? Report this comment

View results 10 results per page20 results per page50 results per page

Have your say