On the ground: extreme lengths

by Neil Hallows

A consultant was left having to decide between his career and the care of his elderly parents

Location: UK International
Last reviewed: 17 March 2022
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Contrary to popular belief, doctors do have lives outside medicine. And for Irfan Ahmed, an important part of his was ensuring the care of his parents.

They are in Pakistan, and Professor Ahmed, a consultant surgeon, was using up a large proportion of annual leave to visit them, and he needed more time. The pandemic has made travel significantly more difficult and stressful.

Planning for, and undertaking, the journeys was having a significant effect on his wellbeing. Feeling a strong obligation to care for his parents, Professor Ahmed applied for a 12-month career break. His employer, like most – if not all – in the NHS, had a policy for considering such applications.

The NHS often speaks of its family friendly credentials. However, Professor Ahmed’s application was rejected, without what he felt were clear reasons. This left him in an invidious position, and he appeared to have no option left but to give up his job.

This would have been a terrible own goal for the health service, given its need to retain doctors and its frequent statements about the need to support them. He called in the BMA, which supported him at the appeal panel set up by his health board.

BMA assistant secretary Niall Hermiston, who helped prepare the appeal, focused on the need for the employer to recognise the cultural and religious obligations which Professor Ahmed felt towards his family, and the stated requirement in the employer’s policy to take note of the risk of resignation – which in this case was very real. The appeal panel consisted of a deputy medical director and an HR manager.

Fortunately, the appeal panel found in Professor Ahmed’s favour, to his delight and relief. After some further negotiations on the details, the career break has now begun.

It is of course the case that doctors of all ethnic backgrounds have caring responsibilities and obligations, but it would seem fair to observe from recent cases that a high proportion of those with issues regarding older parents are from a south-Asian background.

A doctor relocated to Australia, because the British Government would not allow him to move his mother from India to the UK. There have also been examples of doctors unable to take longer periods of annual leave, even though some of that leave may have been used up in COVID quarantine.

It’s hardly unexpected or unpredictable that, in a caring profession, there will be members who wish to, or feel they need to, care for their parents. It’s a fundamental human instinct, and the health service needs to find ways of accommodating it.

This reiterates the importance of the BMA’s call for a softening of the adult dependant relative rules to enable doctors and their colleagues in the NHS to care for older parents in the UK should they need to.

To talk to a BMA adviser about work-related issue, call 0300 123 1233 or email [email protected]