Answering that question took a while for Philippa Whitford as she swapped the operating theatre for the theatrics of Westminster. The surgeon-turned-MP tells Tim Tonkin how – thanks to pressing issues such as privatisation and Brexit – she has found a role
Beside the window of consultant surgeon and MP Philippa Whitford’s office sits a small placard bearing the words: ‘Well behaved women rarely make history.’
It is a philosophy that appears to have served Dr Whitford well throughout her life.
Prior to becoming the MP for Central Ayrshire for the SNP in 2015, Dr Whitford spent more than three decades working in the NHS.
Having embarked on a career in surgery at a time when it was an almost entirely male-dominated specialty, Dr Whitford says she frequently faced everything from incredulous attitudes to open misogyny at job interviews.
‘I was told in the third year of university that I couldn’t actually do surgery because I was a woman… [and] I was asked very sexist questions in interview panels, just bizarre things like “women don’t have the mental or physical capacity” and “will you promise never to have children?”.’
Men at work
The hostility she encountered from the more paternalistic sections of the surgical hierarchy evidently did little to deter her ambitions.
‘I decided I was going to give them a run for their money,’ she says.
Thirty-odd years on from when she started, the health service is now a rather different place.
‘When I started, there were no senior women surgeons in Scotland’
Figures published by NHS Digital show that the proportion of female NHS doctors has been growing every year for nearly a decade, with the number of female consultants rising from 30 per cent in 2009 to 36 per cent this year.
‘I think surgery has changed dramatically,’ Dr Whitford reflects. ‘When I started, there were no senior women surgeons in Scotland at all and precious few even UK-wide.
‘There was a really competitive, macho “how hard are you?” kind of culture, particularly within surgery, and I think that is changing for both sexes.’
Now a full-time politician, Dr Whitford’s first profession continues to have an ever-present influence, from her political interests and activities right down to her physical environment.
The standard-issue, white-walled interior of her Westminster office is adorned with a series of vivid, abstract artworks painted, Dr Whitford explains, by her late sister-in-law during the art-therapy sessions that accompanied her cancer treatment.
Her decision to stand for Parliament came following the 2014 Scottish independence referendum, with Dr Whitford admitting that the transition from medicine to politics has not always been an easy one.
‘It’s a real challenge to get around that [mental] curve, that there was a time when [as a doctor] people trusted you and were polite to you and respectful to you,’ Dr Whitford concedes.
‘Then all of a sudden you are a politician and you are filth.
In an interview given in the weeks following her entrance to politics, she described the sense of disillusionment she had felt during a session of prime minister’s questions, in which the debate seemed to be more about political point-scoring than making progress.
‘I pointed out that people who work in hospitals were watching the debate and were frankly depressed at the quality of it’
Sat on the benches, she began asking herself why she had given up a ‘useful job’ in surgery to sit in the Commons.
‘At one point I thought “this is pointless, I might as well leave the chamber”,’ Dr Whitford recalls. ‘In fact, I stood up and gave them my full, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie ticking off.
‘I pointed out that people who work in hospitals were watching the debate and were frankly depressed at the quality of it. It helped change the tone of the debate.’
The opportunity to bring her clinical and personal experience of the NHS to bear in political debate went some way to reshaping Dr Whitford’s view of her new career.
During her three years as an MP, she has served on the health and social care select committee, the Health Service Safety Investigations Bill joint committee and is her party’s health spokesperson.
Her personal highlights include having the opportunity to cross-examine the then-health secretary Jeremy Hunt over his misleading using of statistics relating to weekend mortality rates in hospitals.
Dr Whitford was also one of five committee members to put her name to a letter to chancellor Philip Hammond in October 2016, which criticised the Government for erroneously claiming that it intended to invest £10bn into the NHS between 2015/16 and 2020/21, when in real terms the figure was just £4.5bn.
‘In the medical world we are challenged to practise evidence-based medicine,’ she says.
‘Unfortunately, what is very startling when you come here [Parliament] is the lack of evidence-based politics.’
With her parliamentary commitments often resulting in close to 100-hour working weeks, she says that her clinical work is now limited to attending one or two breast-screening clinics at University Hospital Crosshouse in Kilmarnock each month.
‘That just keeps me in touch with the real world, which I think is important as a health spokesperson, and hopefully helps me to keep my licence.
‘I miss it [full-time medicine] and I miss a lot of my patients, but I actually meet a lot of my ladies when I am out and about in the constituency.’
Finding a balance between her two careers has never been an easy feat.
‘If you were to ask doctors and nurses who are working in NHS England, I think a lot of them would say they feel the NHS's core principles are being undermined’
It was during her first term in Parliament that Dr Whitford came under fire from a tabloid newspaper, accused of ‘moonlighting’ after working a series of locum shifts at her old hospital.
‘When they attacked me for working in my local hospital it was a very specific situation. We were four breast surgeons, I had swanned off to here [Parliament], one of my colleagues went on maternity leave, while another had a heart attack.
‘The remaining surgeon had been holding the fort for months was taking two weeks’ leave around Christmas and New Year, so they weren’t going to be operating any clinics. I came in and did five days out of what would have been my [Parliamentary] two-week Christmas holiday.’
She says she could still remember her disbelief when speaking to the journalist ahead of their piece going to press.
‘I found myself asking: “You’re reporting this as a bad story?”’ she recounts with a disbelieving smile.
While quick to point out the ‘English votes for English laws’ protocol enacted under David Cameron’s leadership, which precludes MPs from non-English constituencies voting on matters relating solely to England, Dr Whitford insists that her concern and advocacy for the NHS is not limited merely to Scotland.
‘From my point of view, one of the motivations to come here [Westminster] was to fight against the privatisation and outsourcing that I think is really fragmenting and undermining the NHS in England. How public services are run in England has quite a big impact on the budget that comes to Scotland.’
During the 2014 referendum, Dr Whitford had publicly warned that: ‘In five years England will not have an NHS as you understand it and in 10 years, if we vote “no”, neither will Scotland.’
While tacitly accepting that her timing might have been off, Dr Whitford says she still holds to her conviction that the future of the NHS UK-wide is under threat.
‘I’m not sure about the timescales,’ she concedes. ‘But I think if you were to ask doctors and nurses who are working in NHS England, I think a lot of them would say that they feel that the NHS’s core principles are being undermined.
‘Patients are already having to pay for quite a lot of things in England, we see huge amounts of rationing for [things like] hip and knee replacements and cataract surgery.’
‘Workforce is actually the biggest challenge that all four UK health systems face’
One thing of which Dr Whitford is in no doubt is her view that the uncertainties posed by Brexit do pose a huge risk to the stability and sustainability of the health service.
‘If the NHS in England is destroyed and we remain in this situation where we pay our taxes down here and we get our pocket money back, we’re not going to get money back to cover a health service in Scotland if it has disappeared here [in England].
‘I think Brexit is going to create a big financial pressure and make the workforce [crisis] an even bigger issue. Workforce is actually the biggest challenge that all four UK health systems face.’
Brexit, and what it might mean for EU citizens living and working in the UK, has personal resonance for Dr Whitford, who is married to Hans Pieper, a German-born GP.
‘My husband is very stubborn and very chilled, so he is just ignoring it for the present moment,’ she says.
‘His fear was that there might be a ruling that he couldn’t use the NHS because they [the Government] were initially talking about how EU citizens would have to take out private insurance.’
While medicine will remain her first calling in life, Dr Whitford predicts that she will probably be ‘too old’ to return to it full time once she calls time on her political career.
She is also emphatic that while she had to adapt herself to politics in a way that she did not for medicine, she no longer has any doubts about her place at Westminster.
‘One of the problems with Parliament at the moment is that it is dominated by career politicians,’ she says. ‘And we need people from the professions and the real world.’
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