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Please stop vilifying ‘part-timers’

‘Part-time women doctors are a ‘risk’ to the NHS.’1 Thus shouted the headline above The Daily Telegraph’s coverage of the launch of the GMC’s report The State of Medical Education and Practice in the UK. At present, we were told, 57% of registered UK doctors are men, but in five years women will outnumber them. The realisation was, finally, that more doctors will be needed to provide the same care.

It’s sad to see that working part time is somehow seen to be equivalent to a ‘risk’ and that it is women who are singled out for not being good enough. My ‘half-time’ five sessions a week as a GP works out at just over 26 hours, and this doesn’t include professional development, local meetings or time to read the BMJ or New England Journal of Medicine.

This is not an insignificant number of hours – in fact, it’s really quite a respectable contribution to general practice. But being a ‘part-timer’ is often an accusation levelled in a derogatory way.

In February, Anna Soubry, the Conservative MP who has since been appointed as a health minister, appeared on a TV programme and responded to a point RCGP chair Dr Clare Gerada made about what her collagues thought of what was then the health bill, by saying: ‘But you work part time.’ Those of us who work less than ‘full time’ hours were not allowed, in Soubry’s eyes, to have valid views.

Inevitable chauvinism

Can you see the problem with this? Part timers are the ‘risk’ – yet what about the huge benefits we have to offer as a workforce? I would happily bet that we work more hours than our written contract demands.

And then there’s the inevitable chauvinism inherent in it being women who are often the part-timers, and that somehow, caring for family members is a lesser way for a woman to spend her time. This is rot. Especially when you consider that many men work part time in the surgery and balance this with management roles or new commissioning work.

In fact, there is nothing new about female doctors working fewer hours in practice than men. In 2009, it was found that women worked on average 60% full-time equivalent compared with men’s 80%.2 Neurologists reported the same thing in 2007.3 In 2006, it was found that in Scotland, male GPs spent 18% more time on GMS but 50% more time on non-GMS services.4 And back in 2000 the Royal College of Psychiatrists reported ‘the exponential’ growth of part-time trainees and those planning to be part-time consultants.5 As far back as 1997, the Department of Health noted that flexible working was now a ‘general trend’.6

And in fact, the UK Medical Careers Research Group had been following graduates from 1974 to the mid-1980s and telling whoever wanted to listen what was happening.7 This is not new, the data is out there. Yet it is women who are being blamed for daring to want to bring up their families, or care for relatives themselves. Meantime, all those men who wish to contribute to society in another way – through non-GMS services, for example – escape the pejorative term ‘part-timer’.

There is another challenge – of helping people who want to work part time take on leadership or other roles. I’m not sure what’s the best approach to this, but it is definitely not to suggest that we part-timers aren’t contributing enough. We are.

Dr Margaret McCartney is a GP in Glasgow