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