Like all areas of medicine, General Practice can be a hugely rewarding career but requires years of training to qualify for. As many GPs will experience parenthood at some stage in their career, combining the two naturally presents a unique set of challenges.
So from a GP’s perspective, what is maternity / parental leave like in General Practice, and how are GP jobs suited for working parents? We asked Dr Katy McCready, a former salaried GP and mother of three, for her thoughts on the maternity process; adjusting to working part time hours, and whether we may see the rise of male parental leave in the near future.
“My children are now seven, six and four years old” she says. “I took six months’ leave with my first, then ten months each for the younger two. Overall, I’d say mine has been a very positive experience.”
So in her experience, would Dr McCready say that General Practice is the best branch of healthcare in which to start a family? “Well, during my first maternity leave, my maternity pay was misquoted at the rate of a hospital doctor. In reality, my maternity half pay stopped slightly earlier in line with my GP contract. So it’s possible that there are upsides to maternity leave in other areas of medicine, but it’s generally expected that GPs will become parents during their career. I’ve not experienced any major issues at my work, who have always been supportive. I don’t think the positives or the drawbacks in any subspeciality of the profession would be enough to make you change your career path.” However, Dr McCready adds, “now I’m a GP Partner I’m glad I’ve already had my children, as a partnership contract can be less generous and you may have to cover the costs of a locum to cover your absence. I also hadn’t appreciated in some parts of the country it can be very difficult to even find maternity locums due to the recruitment issues which is an added burden if you are self employed."
It’s also fair to suggest that General Practice has made strides in more recent times to help new parents to settle into working with their new responsibilities. For example, there are now keeping in touch days. “The keeping in touch system was great; I used the days for training updates (such as CPR and clinical training) that I might otherwise have missed” says Dr McCready. “Not only was I keeping my skills up to date, but I was being paid to do so – I never felt I was being rushed back into work, and I really did feel ‘in touch’ each time.”
Aside from the mix-up over maternity pay she’s mentioned, is there anything else in being a working parent that Dr McCready felt was unexpected, or that she was perhaps unprepared for? “I would say that you can feel penalised if your day off is a popular training day” she says. “Our regular training was on Thursdays (my day off), so I had to arrange childcare to go in – and getting this time back isn’t always straightforward. Lots can be sorted by having an open discussion with your employers. In a similar way, I asked for one early finish per week after my first maternity leave, but I was refused on the grounds of service provision. It’s something people might not think about beforehand. Some practices can be reluctant to set ‘precedents’ with employees that may not in the future be sustainable.”
Here Dr McCready touches on a much larger topic – that of the GP recruitment crisis. Will this be worsened if there’s no guarantee that a parent GP can return to work on reduced hours? Dr McCready doesn’t think so. “Being a GP is a vocation; the exams are costly and the training takes a lot of effort. There are vast opportunities for part time working within general practice and we are lucky as a profession that we can have a family and not waste years of training. For me, being a GP is part of my identity, and when I’ve been on maternity leave, I have felt as though a part of me was missing!”
So are there advantages to staying in General Practice and working part time, even if they’re not your preferred hours? Absolutely, thinks Dr McCready. “The beauty is that the human body is always the same, so diagnostics will never change, even if the treatments do. You also have the opportunity to develop a ‘portfolio career’ with locum and out-of-hours work if that appeals to you.”
“For trainee GPs, it could be more difficult to go part time as in general they’d need to buddy up with someone else to do so. Similarly, hospital doctors may find this harder due to shift work. But ultimately General Practice does lend itself well to part time working.
If part time General Practice really appeals, could more GP fathers end up taking the parental leave? Is the system set up for this to be a realistic option? “I don’t know any GP fathers who have taken the parental leave, but I do think it could be done if that’s what the parents wanted” says Dr McCready, “but there might be cultural obstacles that extend beyond General Practice. Most social groups and support networks are geared towards women, and this may be preventing more men from taking that step, whether in General Practice or elsewhere.”
However, there’s one factor that Dr McCready suggests could see more of a cultural shift in parental leave between the sexes. “In the last decade, there’s been a huge increase in demand for, and complexity of, services – and patient expectations have increased to go with this. Many GPs are at risk of burnout, so in future it may perhaps become more common that the mother (GP or otherwise) takes a set time off around the birth and so she can breastfeed if possible, then the other parent takes on the child caring duties for the latter few months of the parental leave whilst the mother returns to work. It’s possible that this division of duties will become more commonplace in future.”