More doctors needed, without discrimination

08/11/04

NB. Please note that if you are outside North America, the embargo for LANCET press material is 0001 hours UK Time 13 August 2004.

This week's lead editorial comments on the surprising announcement last week by the President of one of the UK's leading medical organisations that there are too many women doctors working in the UK national Health Service (NHS).

Carol Black, President of the Royal College of Physicians, outlined her position in The Independent newspaper last week. The Lancet editorial comments: 'The background for Black's statement is the gradual increase in the number of women admitted to medical school and in the number who go on to become doctors. In 1963, 34% of admissions to medical school were women and in 2003 this had increased to over 61%. Black's concern in part seems to stem from the fact that more women than men aim to work in part-time medical careers and that there are still relatively few female consultants, potentially reflecting a higher drop-out rate compared with men. In March this year, UK Department of Health figures revealed that only around 25% of hospital medical consultants were women, with even lower numbers in some specialties. However, the drive to make medicine more flexible in accommodating male or female doctors' other commitments should be regarded as a positive move. Indeed, the report by the Royal College of Physicians in 2001 stated, " . . . retaining women in all branches of the medical profession, whilst enabling them to balance their working and family lives, should lead to a healthy, well-motivated medical workforce and better health care for our patients". Furthermore, careful analysis of the figures reveals that the number of female consultants has risen by more than 50% in the last 10 years and is set to continue to do so. The paucity of female consultants at present reflects the lower numbers of women medical students in the 1970s and 1980s.'

The editorial also comments on the poor timing of the announcement--made at the same time that new regulations on maximum working hours under the European Working Time Directive were released--and on Prof Black's assertion that women in medicine have a lower professional standing than male doctors. The editorial concludes: 'The goal of the medical profession must be to provide the best care possible to patients, in a safe and appropriate working environment for doctors. If increasing numbers of women doctors drives change towards a more flexible working environment then that change should be welcomed and encouraged. If the NHS has too few doctors to meet safe staffing requirements then efforts must be made to recruit and train more doctors, irrespective of their sex. If female doctors are perceived as having less professional status than their male counterparts then the underlying reasons should be identified and every effort made to ensure they are resolved. These are difficult times for medicine with unparalleled levels of change, and increasing demands from both politicians and patients. This is not the time for unilateral media courting tactics, or for superficial suggestions to issues as serious as sexism in the workplace. Doctors and their leaders must work together in a considered manner to maintain the trust and respect of the people they serve.'

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