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Connections and reflections: The overall picture for women in medicine in Ireland

Niamh Cahill reports on the varied programme at the Women in Medicine in Ireland Network conference, which was recently held in Cork

Around 100 delegates gathered at Fota Island Resort for the second annual Women in Medicine in Ireland Network (WiMIN) conference in Cork recently.

Founded by Dr Sarah Fitzgibbon, Cork GP, the network held its inaugural meeting in Dublin last year to much enthusiasm from female doctors thankful for the opportunity to connect with colleagues from various specialties.

This year’s event was no different, with an agenda jam-packed with enlightening presentations on a range of issues such as social inclusion, pay inequality and open disclosure, among other topics.

The conference provided free childcare for delegates, which was extremely well received and enabled many to attend the event.

STEM

After a short opening address by Dr Fitzgibbon, Ms Gillian Keating, Partner with Ronan Daly Jermyn Solicitors and co-founder of I Wish (inspiring women in STEM — science, technology, engineering and mathematics), took to the podium.

The opening slide of her presentation simply stated ‘Ordinary people do extraordinary things’.

I Wish is an initiative aimed at inspiring, encouraging and motivating female secondary school students to pursue careers in STEM.

Ms Keating spoke about the work of I Wish since it came into being five years ago, including surveys conducted, which have shown that almost 60 per cent of female secondary school students surveyed felt they did not know enough about STEM.

One-in-four people working in STEM are women. Secondary school respondents were asked why this is so, to which they responded: “We don’t have the confidence to do it and we think men could be better at it.”

Ms Keating said that gender stereotyping “embedded in our culture is holding girls back from participating in STEM” but that “innovative thinking” could create a new culture.

To date, I Wish has held events in Cork and Dublin, with more than 6,000 participants in attendance, helping to increase awareness of STEM among young women.

Social exclusion

Next up was Dr Clíona Ní Cheallaigh, Consultant in General Medicine and Infectious Diseases at St James’s Hospital, Dublin.

Her presentation, titled ‘Social Exclusion, Health and Gender’ looked at the work of the Inclusion Health service, which aids people in poor health due to poverty, marginalisation and multimorbidity.

She highlighted data from a study, ‘Morbidity and mortality in homeless individuals, prisoners, sex workers, and individuals with substance use disorders in high-income countries: A systematic review and meta-analysis’, which found that “that homeless populations, individuals with substance use disorders, sex workers, and imprisoned individuals experience extreme health inequities across a wide range of health conditions, with the relative effect of exclusion being greater in female individuals than male individuals”.

Gaza

Moving to affairs abroad, Dr Emma Keelan, an ST5 respiratory trainee in Northern Ireland with an MA in Global Health from the University of Manchester, spoke about her experience treating women within the Occupied Palestinian territories as a volunteer with Physicians for Human Rights.

She spoke about the negative health impacts suffered by women in conflict and the challenges in accessing healthcare due to medicine shortages and a lack of proper healthcare facilities.

Some of the difficulties faced include poor female specific health policies, late diagnosis of conditions and modesty issues preventing early screening, Dr Keelan told delegates.

She explained that in 2016, there were three functioning mammography units in Gaza for a population of 1.4 million (700,000 women) but with the recent reduction in US aid, this was likely to decease even further. The US, by comparison, has 25 imaging facilities per 1 million of the population, Dr Keelan related.

“Breast cancer diagnosis is therefore often delayed and 60 per cent of Palestinian women are diagnosed with disease that has become metastatic,” she said.

Financial planning

After a short coffee break, Ms Nives Paic, General Manager of IMO Financial Services, spoke about “financial wellness for women” and how to bridge the pension and protection gaps for women working in healthcare.

The pension gap for women in Ireland is 37 per cent, which is one of the highest in Europe, Ms Paic informed delegates.

The data, taken from a survey undertaken by Aviva this year, also found that 63 per cent of women had no private pension, Ms Paic said.

Overall, the survey made for grim reading, finding that men are more proactive than women about their retirement income.

A separate 2018 Irish Life claims report revealed that women who take out income protection claim earlier and more often than men. The main reason for women’s claims is cancer, Ms Paic noted.

More women than men claim once insured and even if some form of protection is given by your HSE employer and GMS scheme, it is not enough to replace your income, Ms Paic advised.

Furthermore, according to HSE data, at the end of 2015 female doctors were retiring on about €10,000 per annum less than their male counterparts.  Female doctors’ lump sum payment was €30,000 less than their male counterparts.

Open disclosure

In a separate presentation, Ms Aisling Twomey, Legal Counsel, Medisec, spoke about open disclosure and the Patient Safety Bill.

In July, Government released the General Scheme of the Patient Safety Bill, which is being progressed by the National Patient Safety Office (NPSO), which was established by the Minister for Health in December 2016.

The bill provides for mandatory open disclosure and currently outlines that serious patient safety incidents such as death of an individual and permanent lessening of bodily, sensory, motor, physical or intellectual functions must be disclosed.

A question and answer session based on all the morning’s presentations subsequently occurred, with some delegates expressing concerns at provisions in the Patient Safety Bill due to the fears around the impact of onerous form-filling processes and guidelines that would accompany open disclosure.

Mentorship

After lunch, Ms Sibéal Carolan, HSE Workforce Development Lead at the Workplace Health and Wellbeing Unit, provided an overview of the HSE mentorship programme and workforce planning.

A lively round-table discussion immediately followed Ms Carolan’s presentation, at which many delegates said they were completely unaware of the HSE mentorship programme.

A number of attendees asked for further information on how the programme would work in practice alongside their often demanding clinical work schedules.

Ms Carolan advised that the time commitment involved in being a mentor was between four-to-six hours per month.

Some delegates expressed the view that the HSE could do much more to support the wellbeing of GPs, with many feeling unsupported due to poor locum support and a lack of protected time for maternity leave.

Other issues raised included the lack of creche facilities at Irish hospitals, the need for more flexible doctor training programmes and the value of the network in providing opportunities for medical students and trainees to socialise with consultant and GP colleagues.

Gender pay gap

Afterwards, Dr Gabrielle Colleran, Consultant Paediatric Radiologist, spoke on the topic ‘Pay inequality and the gender pay gap’.

Dr Colleran covered a range of issues, including the importance of mentorship, the negative impact of the consultant pay gap for new entrants, and her own experiences of sexism and bias in her career to date.

She highlighted the ongoing challenges experienced by women in the workplace, in particular, for women who are a minority in other ways, such as their skin colour and/or sexual orientation.

She noted data from women in the workplace that found a third of lesbian women feel they cannot talk about themselves or their lifestyle outside work.

She called on delegates to “be the change we want to see” and to focus on an “us” environment within the workplace.

The last speaker of the day was Medical Council President Dr Rita Doyle, who presented information on the number of women practising medicine in Ireland.

Dr Doyle said there are now more women than ever before in medicine in Ireland, with almost 10,000 women doctors on the Medical Council register, representing 42 per cent of the total number of doctors in Ireland.

“While men outnumber women on the Medical Council register of medical practitioners, there are proportionately slightly more women than men on the specialist division of the register — that is, 42 per cent of all women versus 41.3 per cent of all men on the register, reflecting a growing proportionate professional parity,” Dr Doyle said.

She presented data that showed the number of complaints received by the Medical Council regarding female doctors was much less than that for men.

At the end of 2018, some 300 male doctors had complaints made against them, in comparison to 140 female doctors.

Speaking following the meeting, Dr Fitzgibbon said she was delighted with how the event went.

“It was great to see such wonderful collegiality from across the grades and specialties. There was plenty of food for thought from the event. We now need to move forward to ensure that progress is made,” she told the Medical Independent.

The next meeting of the network is due to take place in spring 2020, Dr Fitzgibbon added.

The WiMIN is hoping to organise a collaborative meeting in Belfast with members of the UK Medical Women’s Federation sometime in the future.

Dr Fitzgibbon also plans to attend the Centennial Meeting of the Medical Women’s International Association in New York in July.

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