Early career doctors need support beyond professional needs

Health services and colleges must think beyond the professional needs of early career doctors if they are to achieve gender equity and a happy medical workforce, researchers are arguing.

They say addressing doctors’ non-career related priorities is key to attracting and retaining workers in rural areas, while also ensuring female doctors can reach their full potential in their careers.

Led by Dr Tiana Gurney (PhD) of the University of Queensland’s rural clinical school, the team interviewed 32 medical graduates working across Australia in a variety of specialty areas.

Participants, ranging from their 1st to 17th postgraduate year, included junior doctors, trainees and even emerging fellows, who were all considered early career compared to more experienced colleagues, according to the researchers.

They found the doctors all reported a myriad of non-professional pressures and priorities that strongly interplayed with their career and training experiences – occasionally derailing them entirely.

But there were also strong gender differences, Dr Gurney and her colleagues wrote in The International Journal of Health Planning and Management (link here).

Chief among these was that women more likely to change their career course than men to achieve an overall balance with other commitments and partner interests, the researchers said.

They noted the interviews illuminated the fact that maintaining a course of employment and training depended on having access to wider family support.

In part, this is related to the long and unpredictable hours that doctors may need to work in order to complete the postgraduate stage of training, the authors wrote.

“Female doctors’ needs were orientated to partner work and carer responsibilities, while male doctor’s needs were oriented to spending time with family and meeting the family’s needs, highlighting for males, these may be preferences, but for females they are structural barriers,” they wrote.

A common non-work priority among both male and female early career doctors and family stability. This, and work opportunities for the doctors’ partners was a particular issue in rural work, they noted.

Participants also described tension fitting major life events around their careers and training.

One said: “Do all your training before you consider having a life. It makes it a bit easier … the young, single, mobile registrar trainee versus the person married with a mortgage, having to mow the grass on the weekend after being away for a training course.”

But while both men and women interviewed said time with their families, there was a key difference between their responses, according to the authors.

This was expressed by male GPs, who described opting for the specialty to “enjoy life outside of medicine and spend time with their families”.

In contrast, female GPs said a lack of flexibility in other specialties had limited their career options so they had become GPs to accommodate time with their children.

This led to a question over whether female doctors were being “inhibited” from reaching their true potential, the researchers said, adding it also raised the issue of what resources were being being made available to women trainees.

“Solutions such as family friendly work patterns, flexible training and work practices, and partner employability in rural areas are just some initiatives that should be given due consideration,” they wrote.

Speciality colleges, employers recruiters and training systems should give consideration to  ‘whole of person’ factors in postgraduate  training  policies and programs, the researchers concluded.

“In particular, current training and employment pathways could be more flexible, individually tailored, and accountable to the non-professional demands and preferences of doctors.”

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