An indiscriminate issue

by Dr Mairi Reed

Dr Mairi Reed speaks about how doctors can be, and are, affected by domestic abuse too and the issues they face in accessing support.

Published: Monday 25 November 2019
BMA in the news Illustration

Domestic abuse spans gender, age, sexual orientation and religion, and it affects people of all socioeconomic backgrounds and education levels.

This is a sentence that as doctors we accept. We are taught early on that any issue can affect anyone, and that there is no place for prejudice in medicine. 

But when it comes to domestic abuse, how much do we really believe this? How often do we consider that our colleagues or friends may be suffering or even perpetrating it?

In 2018 we aimed to bring domestic abuse in the medical profession to the forefront of people’s minds. It seemed unreasonable, when the statistics tell us 25% of women experience a form of domestic abuse in their lifetime, that some of those women wouldn’t be doctors.

We were further concerned about evidence that nurses were more at risk of abuse than the general population due to their personality and caring nature. We believed this risk extended to doctors and that it was a problem that remained truly hidden within the bounds of the medical profession. 

The response we received from delegates of both the junior doctors conference and annual representative meeting was phenomenal, and I cannot count the number of personal accounts of doctors experiences of domestic abuse I was – and continue to be – approached with.

It’s an emerging evidence base that allows us to formalise the problem and ensure the correct support is available for doctors in their most desperate time of need.

But what makes doctors different? Why will they benefit from specialised support rather than the services already available? Why should this be a trade union and workplace issue rather than a social one? It comes down to those attitudes and beliefs about the type of person others believe this happens to, the impact it may have on how others perceive your competence, and most of all the fear of not being believed.

The doctor who was told during legal proceedings that it couldn’t have happened because as a doctor she was too intelligent to put up with that behaviour and stay in that relationship.

The doctor who was too embarrassed to seek support from her local women’s aid service because she regularly referred patients to them in a professional capacity.

The doctor who was told she may not be stable enough to look after patients if she could not look after herself.

The doctor who was referred to a ‘doctors in difficulty’ investigation panel after continually needing to call in sick on Mondays after a weekend of abuse.

The doctor who regularly missed night shifts because she was too afraid to leave her children at home with her partner.

The doctor who couldn’t access financial support due to her earnings, despite having to live on an allowance provided to her by her partner 

The doctor who had letters sent to her employer with proposed evidence she was a danger to patients.

The doctor who had to remain in the same small community as her abuser, as she was unable to gain an emergency inter-deanery transfer for training.

The doctor who was too afraid to leave as she was continually threatened with false allegations being reported to the GMC if she did.

These are only some of the issues and accounts that have been given to me, and the consequences of each are devastating both personally and professionally.

Doctors are scared, not just for themselves but for their careers. It is imperative that we recognise this problem does exist, and as a trade union, we ensure the correct support is available to allow those suffering to escape safely.

This starts by ensuring there is a named contact and policy within the workplace that can be accessed easily and discreetly. It is shocking that one in three NHS trusts do not have a policy in place to enable them to do this, and that some policies have more guidance in them about managing perpetrators than supporting victims.

Most of all, the medical community must realise that however well we’re taught that there’s no place for prejudice in medicine and to never judge our patients, many of us continue to do so to our colleagues, and there is certainly no place for that.

Mairi Reid is a member of the junior doctors committee.

Your wellbeing

We have a range of services to support you.

  • Counselling
  • Peer support
  • UK wellbeing support directory

Call our free and confidential helpline on 0330 123 1245

View our services