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What will the rise in women GPs mean for continuity of care?

It wasn’t our biggest story of this week. But in terms of the long-term impact on the future of general practice, it may well be the most significant.

By Steve Nowottny

It wasn't our biggest story of this week. But in terms of the long-term impact on the future of general practice, it may well be the most significant.

The Royal College of Physicians predicted today that in just four years, there will be more women than men working as GPs.

It's a genuinely startling statistic, and all the more so when you consider that currently just 42% of GPs are women.

Reaction to the report so far has been uniformly positive (RCGP chair Professor Steve Field said today he was ‘delighted'), and with good reason. Even in the 21st century, medicine still has a lingering reputation as a bastion of male dominance, and it's only right and proper that the makeup of the profession should reflect the wider population.

But it does also raise some questions, not least over how a predominantly female GP workforce could change the face of general practice.

As the college's report also finds, female GPs often much prefer a more flexible, part-time style of working, and for better or worse, this is likely to have an impact on that most hallowed concept of general practice – continuity of care.

The RCP is calling for an urgent investigation into the workforce implications of its findings to ensure continuity of care is not put at risk.

One of the key arguments against the widespread rollout of Darzi centres and polyclinics, after all, was that they would be staffed with a large number of doctors, often working shifts, and that this would inevitably disrupt the traditional relationship between a patient and ‘their' GP.

Well, the much-publicised Darzi centre rollout will bring several hundred new GPs offering this supposedly-reduced continuity of care. And a back-of-the-envelope calculation suggests that the 8% jump in the proportion of female GPs predicted over the next four years could see almost 3,000 more women working in general practice.

Of course, that's not in any way to suggest that more women GPs will lead to any reduction in quality of care. On the contrary, there can be advantages associated with flexible working, female GPs often have a different skill set to offer and besides, many will choose to work exactly the same hours as their male counterparts – who may also increasingly look to work part-time.

But one thing is certain – such a massive swing in the gender-balance and a consequent shift towards part-time working will have a real impact on how general practice is delivered in the future. And it's something the profession should probably start considering sooner rather than later.

More than half the GP workforce will be female by 2013, according to the Royal College of Physicians More than half the GP workforce will be female by 2013, according to the Royal College of Physicians

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