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Mother care

I've asked to see a female GP. It's not because I doubt the competence of the male partners, but because I am presenting with what I presume is lactational mastitis.

And while I don’t really care whether the doctor examining me is male or female, I think it’s reasonable to assume that the female doctor with the new baby knows a little bit more about the complications of breastfeeding than a male doctor.

And it’s not barn door I-need-antibiotics-now-type mastitis, but possible early mastitis, and I want the opinion of someone who’s probably had a bit of personal experience of breastfeeding. 

‘I learned nothing about breastfeeding in medical school,’ I remark, as I explain the reason for my consultation.

‘Nor did I, or about children, until I had my own,’ she confides.

And this makes me start thinking that there are aspects of my life, my relationships and my experience that influence subconsciously the way I practise medicine.

I’ve been the worried relative, the anxious parent and the bereaved mother-to-be, crying my eyes out in the early pregnancy unit at the sight of the empty gestation sac on a pixelated screen.

As a casualty doctor, I always seemed to be the only female on my shift, and ended up seeing every vaginal bleed. I cringe at the thought of my naive younger self explaining the possible outcomes in a very cold, detached matter of fact way. No doubt, the women I saw must have realised that miscarriage was a possibility.

Does having children make you a better doctor? The consultant paediatrician on a recent course I went on didn’t think so, and said: ‘Just because I’ve had four of them, doesn’t mean I know all about children.’

But even if having children doesn’t make you a good paediatrician, experience of them has undoubtedly influenced my clinical practice.

It’s a combination of subtle influences. Sometimes, it’s obvious. For example, my experience of handling my babies and toddlers has made me confident when examining other people’s children. I am familiar with the workings of baby grows, and able to investigate and change any nappy as required with the dexterity of a seasoned pro. I know all the songs from the pre-school TV programmes. I’m able to rapidly develop a rapport. I can empathise with the parents, their concern for their children and their loss of perspective. I am unfazed by tears.

Personal experience of ill health is clearly not an essential aspect of a doctor’s training, just as having children can’t be a prerequisite for a paediatrician. Being a parent has doubled the length of my specialist training, but I also think that my experiences with them have in so many ways enhanced it.

Zara Ford is a specialty trainee

Posted in:  Emergency medicine Foundation doctors General practice

Tags:  Primary care medical education and training child healthcare maternity services women's health general practice obs and gynae


  • S Parker

    12 September 2012

    I agree with the broad gist of this article, however the suggestion that medical students spend time in a wheelchair is somewhat flawed.

    Near the beginning of the clinical phase of my medical school training we were given a day of "disability awareness" in which we had to put on blindfolds, try being in a wheelchair, wear glasses with prisms in, etc, and were told that it was so that we could experience what being disabled was like. Having empathy with disabled people is important, but putting a blindfold on for 20 minutes does NOT give one an insight into what being blind is like - when we got fed up we could simply take the blindfold off, which of course someone who is visually impaired cannot do.

    Before attending medical school I volunteered with after-school and respite care groups for children with learning difficulties, and also sailed on the tall ship Tenacious, where crew members of different physical abilities work alongside one another.

    What the Paralympics has shown us is real disabled people achieving amazing things. If we want to train doctors who have an understanding of disability politics and an awareness of the ways in which societal structures disable people with impairments, then I think that spending quality time with disabled people will provide deeper and more empathetic learning than having to spend a day in a wheelchair.

  • Farida

    28 September 2012

    true ...always felt I had to qualify every visit with "although I did paediatrics in year 4, I am not sure what is normal" ......I agree ...I would prefer someone who had had children........does that make us discerning relatives......?
    I think every life experience enriches practice ......and will bring a better sense of empathy or understanding

    loved this article....

  • Sarah

    10 October 2012

    Really enjoyed this piece. As a mother of 2 year old with a second child due in January, I am struggling with the work-life balance, training part-time & watching my former peers speed ahead. But the skills I am learning outside the work place, simply being organised to name but one, no doubt have a positive impact on my work. I left direct clinical practice for a diagnostic specialty due to a lack of support in continuing my training on a part-time basis, and I am pleased to hear it is actually possible to balance the too, with benefits to patients from life experience.

  • Lucy

    10 October 2012

    I'd echo Sarah almost exactly - except my second is due in March!
    I left a direct clinical training post (O&G) where I wasn't supported to move to public health, which is much more family friendly. I, too, am pleased to hear it's possible to combine both - but sad that someone else felt they had to make the same decision i did.
    Interestingly, I wonder in my more 'wobbly' moments if I would have coped so well with the more heartbreaking aspects of the clinical job. Somehow there is a difference between empathy (good) and sympathy (draining and probably not so helpful for patients); having a direct and personal understanding of a patient's experience can sometimes mean that one tends towards the latter. For instance, I struggled to cope with a neonatal (F2) rotation after I'd had a miscarriage - maybe it was all too soon and too raw. I suspect I was also unlucky to hit a run of neonatal deaths in my unit. I don't think during that period I was either an especially good doctor or a very happy person.
    Another thing that fascinates me is the impact we have on our children with our medical backgrounds. A scalp injury to 2 year old with lots of bleeding and a trip to A&E for glueing reminded me of my 'clinical' self; and he remained almost completely unfazed... unlike the nursery staff where he'd bumped his head!

  • foajifwa

    3 February 2014



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