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Falling into the parent trap

Upon reading a recent article published in The Guardian, titled ‘Being a mother doesn’t make me a better midwife’, I was struck by how much the piece resonated with me. The author described how she noticed a differing attitude being displayed by some of her patients to her once she divulged that she herself was a mum. One patient even appeared to be angry at the thought that a midwife involved in her care might not actually have children herself.

This blurring of the lines between professional and personal lives and lived experience caused me to wonder how many times I myself had been forced to answer questions about my personal life by usually well-meaning but inquisitive patients, and how I’ve often got the impression that my professional opinion, particularly when assessing and treating younger patients, alongside their mothers (and fathers also!) may not have, in certain instances, carried the same weight than were I to have replied ‘yes’ to the question ‘do you have kids yourself, doctor?’

Some could argue that such a line of questioning is directed to doctors of either gender, however, I could only ever comment on my own personal experience, being a female GP. You could also comment that by being a GP, the relationship you have with your patients is of a far more familiar and personal nature than that of a hospital-based doctor, who may only have one or two fleeting contacts with the same patient, and for that reason any such queries should be viewed as being purely harmless, essentially part and parcel of the job. I mean, I know a substantial amount of detail about my patients’ medical and social histories, and parts of their personal lives that have been divulged to me over the course of getting to know them.

Surely the least they could know about their doctor is whether she’s married, has children, etc?

I have asked this very question of myself frequently over the course of my GP training, which has taken me to various parts of the country to work and where I have encountered many patients, for whom I was the ‘new doctor’. Empathy, professionalism and a mutual trust and respect between doctor and patient are the cornerstones of any successful consultation, and naturally is a process that develops over time. What then, when you feel as a doctor, and as a person, that this may not be enough? What about the time when you were told at the end of a visit, by the mum of a 18-month-old boy with mild bronchiolitis to whom you were explaining a management plan and how antibiotics would not be necessary, that ‘if you had children yourself, maybe you’d understand’. I can see how this mum may have been frustrated that she perceived me, the GP, as being unsympathetic by virtue of the fact that there was little I was able to prescribe to ‘fix the problem’ other than simple analgesia and observation.

My training and my professional ability as a doctor are not divorced from my ability to empathise and be human — in fact they’re intertwined

Whilst this scenario is a relatively infrequent occurrence, it is not a singular event. I’m certainly not naive enough to believe that all of my patients will always agree with my clinical opinion, and thankfully I don’t feel I have a sufficiently large ego to be able to dispense with collaboration with my patients and fellow health professionals (so vital for me) but when such a personal statement is levelled at you, I can’t say it doesn’t hurt, or make me bristle slightly. The inference was that if I had young children myself, I would truly be able to empathise and treat the patient accordingly is hurtful and incorrect.

I spent many years training to become a GP, a job I love, and I fully recognise the great privilege it is to hold that position. I have worked in a variety of training jobs, including paediatrics, psychiatry and emergency medicine and I have met and listened to patients of all ages, including their relatives. I have seen them at times of great vulnerability, recovery and strength and have held the hands of relatives as they kept vigil at the bedsides of their loved ones.

My training and my professional ability as a doctor are not divorced from my ability to empathise and be human — in fact they’re intertwined. However it is critical, for the sake of patient safety and maintaining professionalism, that we as doctors are able to practice evidence-based medicine and make compassionate, professional decisions for and with our patients without being swayed too far by our own personal experiences. It is for that reason that I feel that having children doesn’t make you a better doctor, just as having diabetes wouldn’t make you a better endocrinologist.

Ask me the question by all means, but I don’t feel that my ability to treat you, as a trained professional, would be enhanced by whether I have children or not.

I simply want to do my job as a doctor, that’s all.

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