You have more time than you think

The tragedy of losing her husband became a catalyst for change in Mary McCarthy’s medical career

Location: UK
Last reviewed: 20 April 2022

I became a GP because my father was a GP in London. He was involved with the BMA and its local division, but I intended to combine GP life with having a family and did not consider getting involved in medico-politics.

I married and we had six children (I am the eldest of 10 so this was downsizing). I worked as a half-time GP in Shropshire until my youngest went to secondary school. I was offered a local partnership and was allowed to keep my part-time post as a hospital practitioner in diabetes.

It was a reassuring and mundane life until my husband was diagnosed with bone secondaries from renal cancer. He died six weeks after his first symptom. This was a shipwreck for our family. The children were at school and university, and I thought we would not survive the pain of his absence. The weight of grief was enveloping, but the children grew closer. I worked, wrote diabetic papers, and studied, and since I had no social life, I had plenty of time.

Then in 2002 I successfully applied for a vacant seat on my local LMC.  I enjoyed the meetings and became LMC chair surprisingly quickly.  I wrote papers on QOF with my hospital colleagues, had them published, and then went on to give a presentation to the American Diabetes Association.  I was encouraged by my LMC secretary to stand for election to GPC (GPs committee) in 2008, which was the start of my BMA career.

Being on GPC has allowed me to meet wonderful GPs from all over the country and to learn how different general practice is in different areas. Committee representatives are encouraged to join policy groups and I was no exception, working on the clinical and prescribing group and IT. 

I took on the post of GPC representative to UEMO (European Union of General Practitioners) which meant travelling to European cities for its General Assembly meetings. Talking to other delegates at my first meeting was an eye-opening experience as I soon realised how different general practice and family medicine were in other European states. Many states felt their general practice systems were on a good footing and sustainable, yet this was not the case in the UK. 

It prompted me to explore these differences further and I began to survey fellow UEMO representatives and collate the results. The evidence showed countries that considered their general practice arrangements to be reasonable and sustainable had certain factors in common:  normal working hours (9am-5pm, sometimes finishing at 4pm or 2pm on a Friday); lists of 1,000 patients per GP; fewer patient groups to care for (for example, in some states GPs did not treat children, the elderly, gynaecological issues, or mental health); 20–30-minute appointments and fewer than 25 patient contacts per day. To me, this was revolutionary, especially since the population health outcomes of these nations were better than in the UK.

My findings were presented at the UEMO General Assemblies, at European medical conferences and to GPC to help inform its own work on making general practice more sustainable as a career choice in the UK.

My work with UEMO has given me many opportunities. I’ve been able to share information and best practice between UK and European GP systems; attend European policy meetings and join discussions in the EU Parliament; speak at many European medical conferences and become elected as vice president of the UEMO in 2016.

The tragedy of my husband’s death was a catalyst in my life. Looking back, it gave me a second chance at a medical life and turned a job into a career with many proud moments. I received the fellowship of the RCGP, surrounded by my children, 10 years after my husband’s death.

Within the BMA, my proudest moment was persuading the BMA to host the successful UEMO General Assembly in 2017, which saw 25 nations assembled in the Great Hall. For UEMO, it was in 2019 when signing the agreement with the European Medicines Agency, which brought GPs into the agency’s stakeholder groups for the first time.

There remain too few women members of BMA committees, but it is through taking a more active role in the organisation that I have been given the opportunities and the space to do the work I have. I would like the BMA to be representative of the doctors it serves, and this means increasing the number of women at the top. A women leader of the BMA is long overdue.

The advice I’d give to my younger self is that love and kindness are the oil that helps social interactions. Your life can change in a heartbeat, and you have more time than you think.

Mary McCarthy is a GP and a member of the BMA’s UK council, board of science and medical ethics committee. She is also UEMO vice president.

The BMA’s Voices of women campaign aims to spotlight the stories, experiences and diversity of our members at all levels, from grassroots local negotiating committees and regional representatives to our national committees. By sharing your story as part of this campaign, we hope to encourage more women to get involved with the work of BMA and empower them in their professional lives. To learn more about how you can get involved, email us.