Balancing family life with general practice

Professor Rodger Charlton discusses the challenges faced by GPs who have family commitments and suggests ways to overcome them.

GP work is flexible enough to allow you to juggle family commitments (Photo: SPL)
GP work is flexible enough to allow you to juggle family commitments (Photo: SPL)

Thirty years ago, it was not easy to juggle work and family life.

This was in the days before mobile phones and an out-of-hours service. The GP would have to wait by the telephone for calls, or someone else would have to do so to take messages and relay calls when the GP went out to visit a patient.

Night calls, in particular, are not conducive to family life.

How to balance family life with being a GP
  • Negotiate with your practice team to enable you to work the hours that suit you and your family.
  • You may be able to negotiate a reduction or increase in your hours according to changes in your family circumstances.
  • Consider taking a sabbatical and working in another country if you and your family would enjoy the experience.
  • Help your colleagues in times of crisis and they will be more willing to help you if the need arises.
  • Don't take work home with you.

Independent contractors

These days, I give careers talks to students and foundation year doctors to try to inspire them about general practice, because now it really does fit in with family life.

Family commitments now cover a broad spectrum of needs, from doing the school run with the children, to caring for an elderly parent or looking after a child while your partner is at work.

However, with the agreement of your GP partners and practice team, and while still providing adequate access for your patients, you can work hours that suit your practice as well as everything that is happening outside your work as a GP.

Being self-employed allows you to have a say in your daily timetable. Similarly, if you need to take time off, this can be negotiated with your colleagues, or a locum may be employed.

Training and beyond

It is possible to take time out from vocational training to have a family, whether for maternity or paternity leave. As a GP, you could also take time out for your family. It may be that if you have young children or become a carer for an elderly parent, you need to reduce your hours.

You can do this with colleagues' agreement and many GPs work part-time to juggle their family and professional commitments.

Conversely, once your children have left home, you may have an opportunity to increase your hours in a bigger partnership.

Sabbaticals

Some practices have a study leave/sabbatical clause in their partnership agreement, which may be for anything from three to 12 months.

The GP will need to book the dates in advance and agree any locum arrangements with colleagues.

I spent a 12-month sabbatical in New Zealand in the 1990s and would highly recommend taking the opportunity to spend time working in a different healthcare system, with the chances it provides for your family to live in a different country.

The best timing for a sabbatical is before the children reach secondary school age, or perhaps after they have left home.

A sabbatical can also be good for your practice, because you will come back refreshed and with new skills.

Unexpected events

Unfortunately, family bereavements and other such events usually happen without warning.

Again, the flexibility of general practice means that it is much easier for a GP to rearrange a session, for example, to attend a funeral, than it is for a hospital doctor to rearrange a clinic or operating list. Colleagues will be understanding of such crises.

Similarly, if you need to collect your sick child from school, or attend a parents' evening that overlaps with an evening surgery, you can negotiate with colleagues to deal with such occurrences.

There is only so much advance planning that you can do, but the key here is give and take. If your colleagues know you will help them in a crisis, they will help you in return and see a few extra patients for you.

GP partnership

There are pros and cons to being a salaried GP or a partner. Being a partner will allow you to balance general practice with family life.

It may not be quite so simple for a salaried doctor, although many partnerships will be flexible about the hours a salaried doctor works, to fit in with childcare, for example.

Some liken the give and take required between GP business partners to a successful marriage.

Taking work home with you

Try not to spend your evenings and weekends going to CCG, LMC or postgraduate meetings, or being glued to your laptop catching up on work emails or reports.

The key here is time management. Do the work at the surgery and don't take it home.

Lastly, remember that you are more likely to inspire your children to follow in your career footsteps if you pursue some other interests, outside of your GP work, that they can enjoy with you.

  • Professor Charlton is a GP trainer, Hampton-in-Arden, and director of undergraduate primary care education at the University of Nottingham

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