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NHS workplaces urged to acknowledge impact of domestic abuse on female GPs

by Jess Hacker
22 February 2021

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NHS workplaces should improve support services for single doctor mothers who have experienced domestic abuse (DA), and improve confidentiality in disclosure, a study has suggested.

The study, published by the British Journal of General Practice (18 February), recommended that specialised support services are required, to reduce the risk of victim-survivors encountering colleagues and patients when accessing support.

Researchers carried out interviews with 21 female doctors, who were single parents and who had experienced DA, between August 2019 and March 2020, in a bid to identify unique barriers they have faced in seeking help.

Around 7% of females in England and Wales experienced DA in the year to March 2019, and were twice as likely to experience it than males.

A confidential service for doctors would allow GP victim-survivors to access support without risk of encountering colleagues or patients, the report said.

Lived experiences

Some interviewees reported feeling discouraged from disclosing abuse to another health professional. One participant said that, when disclosing abuse to their GP, she felt she was doubted.

Others felt that dealing with difficult colleagues and patients had ‘normalised poor treatment at home’, the study said.

Participants pointed out that they may be familiar with the local team they needed to approach for support, with added complexity in a case where ‘the ex-partner [abuser] was a doctor locally’. Such an abuser might threaten to report the victim-survivor to the General Medical Council, it was suggested.

‘Unsupportive’ and ‘judgemental’ work environments

The report said that DA ‘needs to be acknowledged by NHS workplaces’.

‘Insufficient’ DA training in medical schools needs to be ‘delivered sensitively, recognising that the problem affects all females, recognising that doctors can also be victim’, it also recommended.

Many interviewees felt their experiences of DA had ‘threatened their sense of identity as a doctor’.

DA impacts both the wellbeing of and work delivered by female GPs, the report said.

It found that the work environment ‘is often experienced as unsupportive’, and one in which ‘victim-survivors often do not feel able to talk about the abuse confidentially’.

Some participants perceived ‘medical culture to be judgemental towards doctors with problems in their personal lives’.

Other findings

Countering the impact of presenteeism – a practice whereby a person will overwork to compensate a feeling of insecurity – is also a necessary step within NHS workplaces, the report said.

It noted: ‘A shift away from the culture of presenteeism in medicine is required to allow doctors experiencing stress at work, or in their personal lives, to be supported to take leave to recover.’

The report also found that many doctors in training believed ‘compassion’ should be shown in planning rotas, particularly for those female GPs who are unable to secure childcare.