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Mark Radcliffe: 'Whatever happened to the idea of flexible working?’

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A recent article in the BMJ expressed concern over the rising number of women doctors and the potentially harmful effect on patient care. The worry is that if too many doctors are women, they may work part-time – what with their babies and the hoovering and shopping – and then where will we be?

Dependent on men, like we were in the 1950s before all this equal rights nonsense began and there was no pressure on us boys to learn how to bake.

Of course, the concern over women doctors isn’t about discrimination, good lord no. It is about patient-centred care and making services work effectively. Indeed, given the proportion of nurses who are women, some of whom have the audacity to want babies and, in some unforgivable cases, hobbies as well, it’s remarkable the whole health service didn’t come falling down around our ears years ago. No, I mean falling down even more than it did.

Was it so long ago we were celebrating the new dawn of working practice that was ‘Improving Working Lives’? You remember, when we were all told that, regardless of gender, we could work flexibly – maybe part-time, maybe term time and that work would be allowed to fit in with our life choices. That didn’t last long, did it?

Now the financial squeeze is back on we are less interested in retaining and recruiting staff into a family friendly ‘come and work for us and we’ll give you Wednesdays off you little snugglemuffin’ modern health service. Instead it’s more like ‘we’re running on a tight budget and if we’re going to meet our targets we’ll be employing workaholic bachelors with no friends, families or interests. They may burn out after two years but by Jove we’ll get our money’s worth out of them first’.

It seems to me the important question isn’t ‘should we have so many women doctors, given they may have children and work part-time?’ but rather ‘why aren’t more men working flexibly in order to enjoy looking after their kids?’ And ‘why don’t we train more doctors, or more healthcare professionals generally, to enable more flexible working across the whole sector?’ Because wasn’t that what we were supposed to be doing just eight years ago?

I know eight years is a long time in healthcare and an eternity in politics but Improving Working Lives was all about creating a healthy, effective and balanced workforce. As soon as the money gets a bit tight, all that guff about a satisfied workforce goes out the window and we wonder if we can put kids up chimneys again, albeit only during half-term.

Decent healthcare services start with decent staff, who can enter the professions safe in the knowledge they will be allowed not only to have families but also to see them. We want to attract the best, regardless of gender or desire to parent.

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