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by Dr Anita Sharma
27 February 2018

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Why doctors need better support on returning from maternity leave

Striking off Dr Bawa-Garba missed the point. It was the system that failed – and it puts other doctors returning from maternity leave at risk, says Dr Anita Sharma

The primary care landscape is changing so fast. a period of absence can leave you struggling to know how things work. There can be differences in making an appointment, referring for investigations, accessing pathology labs, electronic prescriptions; the list goes on and on.

These things matter – to us and to our colleagues in secondary care, who also face enormous challenges. Six-year-old Jack Adcock died after being treated by a doctor returning from long leave who had to cover the work of three doctors. There was no registrar and no consultant onsite and the hospital computer system failed. Perhaps if Dr Hazida Bawa-Garba had been reintroduced to her workplace with preparation and support, things might have been different.

We spend vast sums of NHS money on inquiries into patient deaths – and we create false hope for bereaved relatives that this won’t happen again. We are simply moving the deckchairs on the Titanic. Instead, we need to make sure we have separated the learning and the blaming processes.

We must tackle the problematic working environments, insufficient training and support for clinicians. A climate in which many doctors feel vulnerable is when they come back to work after maternity leave with no support or colleagues to provide a safe care. Anything from safeguarding to palliative care drugs, the pharmacist in charge to how information is forwarded to out of hours can be different.

I offer keep in touch (KIT) days to my staff on maternity leave so they can get used to system changes. Women are entitled to up to ten days, as long as they are eligible for statutory maternity pay, regardless of the number of hours they work.

But KIT days aren’t often available for doctors. After the Dr Bawa-Garba case, I know most female GPs on maternity leave may be deeply worried and uncertain about coming back to the surgery.

Can it be safe for GPs returning to work to spend just ten minutes with patients with complex co-morbidity? With four or more problems, changes in EMIS, docman, pathology labs and electronic prescribing? Certainly not! KIT for doctors should be a priority for safe patient care and the British Medical Association (BMA) must support this.

Dr Anita Sharma is a GP and Clinical Director, Vascular, at Oldham CCG