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‘The Lady Doctor’ will see you now

Being a female general practitioner isn’t easy, but it is a special privilege

Some 40 minutes behind with a cold cup of tea decaying on my desk, I waved goodbye to the fungal toe infection of a sweet retiree and braced myself for what may come in the door next. “You’ll be with the lady doctor” I heard my receptionist say from the waiting room. My next patient, a solicitor in her 30s, came in looking shocked. “I can’t believe they still call you that,” she exclaimed, kindly indignant on my behalf.

“‘Lady doctor’ is a bit outdated isn’t it? You wouldn’t catch anyone at work calling me the lady lawyer.” I smiled in agreement. It had seemed old-fashioned to me at first too. It also felt vaguely sexist, that being a woman was such a defining trait of my professional role, important enough to become part of my title. But I was used to it by now. As any female GP in rural practice knows ‘the Lady Doctor’ is a pseudonym that isn’t easily escaped.

In all honesty I have never really minded the title. It is old-fashioned and probably not in keeping with the most politically correct standards of feminism. But I don’t find it particularly offensive. Many of my patients are elderly and this quaint term makes sense to them. And besides, it isn’t a lie. I am female, I am a doctor (whether I’m a ‘lady’ or not could be disputed). I even have a reluctant fondness for the term.

It seems so old-fashioned that it reminds me of some imagined time when the rural GP was a revered and respected pillar of the community. It does seem to come with its own implications though.

As if being a woman somehow sets you apart from the generic ‘male doctors’. And in reality your role IS different as a female doctor. There is an old joke that female GPs have to specialise in ‘tears and smears’. A female GP may not have chosen a special interest when she entered the profession, but she will quickly learn she has been given
one by the nature of her double X chromosome.

Whether they like it or not a female GP is expected to have expertise in ‘women’s health’. This is understandable. Many women are more comfortable being examined by another woman and a female GP can often relate better to the problems women present with. Most female GPs know themselves the highs and lows of trying to get pregnant or trying not to get pregnant. They know that, yes, it is hard to remember to take the pill every day and can relate when their patient sits in front of a developing pregnancy test and waits the three minutes that feel like an eternity for the result.

So in a way it makes sense for female GPs to specialise in women’s health. But it’s easy to resent this when we are shoe-horned into it by the nature of our biology. We may be allowed to have an optional interest in dermatology or minor surgery, but women’s health is mandatory. The other part of that old joke is that female doctors specialise in ‘tears’.

All GPs, male and female, specialise in tears. Unfortunately, we could drown in the tears that have been cried in our offices. One of the special privileges of being a GP is that your patients let you into the most intimate and vulnerable parts of their lives. It’s that relationship that makes GP such a rewarding career.

Being the holder of all these tears can have its downsides though. It’s easy to get burnt out when you stand on the edge of all the human suffering and sadness that comes through a GP’s office. And sometimes I wonder whether more tears get cried in the office of ‘the Lady Doctor’. Society expects women to be soft and gentle. Sometimes this expectation makes it easier for our patients to open up to us than it is to open up to a man. This is a great and powerful thing.

But it does mean the burden of all these tears can fall a little too heavily on ‘the Lady Doctor’. And what does that do to our ability to survive a career that can be back-breaking at the best of times? So I’ll return in the morning to my office. On that day ‘the Lady Doctor’ told ‘the Lady Lawyer’ that she had accepted her title. Being ‘the Lady Doctor’ is a special and privileged position and medicine would be a lot poorer without our unique talents.

But that doesn’t mean it’s easy. So next time you see a tearful patient quietly leave the room of your female colleague comforted after a long consultation, spare a thought for us ‘Lady Doctors’, taking smears and wiping tears for the nation.

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