To mark International Women’s Day (8 March 2021), we caught up (remotely!) with Dr Susan Bews and got her thoughts on the impact of a global pandemic on appraisals, and her impressions on gender equality in our field.
Dr Bews is one of the most respected physicians in our specialty. She serves as Responsible Officer for the Faculty Designated Body, and was President of FPM from 2005 to 2009.
As background, what is the role of a Responsible Officer?
The role is a statutory one and like many lines taken from legislation might sound quite dull – but it most certainly isn’t! Paraphrased, the Responsible Officer must ensure doctors undergo annual appraisals, that concerns about a doctor’s practice are investigated, that doctors practise in accordance with any restrictions on their licence and must make revalidation recommendations to the GMC. But behind the legal wording is the opportunity to get to know many hundreds of doctors who, like me, choose pharmaceutical medicine for their career and to see colleagues develop and expand their responsibilities. Most rewarding however, is the privilege of being able to provide support and guidance to those who need it in order that they can retain their licence to practise.
How has your role changed since the beginning of the pandemic?
As for everyone there have been significant changes although less for me than for many of my colleagues. Very early on, recognising the concerns many would have in travelling, we moved to video appraisals. That was in fact short-lived as, as the impact of the pandemic on doctors became apparent, there was support from the GMC for appraisals to be put on hold. This inevitably resulted in a relatively quiet period for the Appraisal Leads, the office and myself. Time to tackle those tasks that kept dropping down the priority list – and the weeds. It was, as would be expected, also a quiet time for leavers and joiners, an aspect that normally can take up quite a lot of our time. However I then joined an Academy of Medical Royal Colleges group to look at possible changes to appraisals to take account of the extreme challenges many doctors were facing. The result of the work of that group was a rebalanced format and when a national decision was taken that appraisals should be restarted, again with the support of the GMC, the rebalanced supportive format was ready to be introduced.
The GMC also changed the revalidation dates for a large cohort of doctors in order to free up clinical and administrative staff to support the pandemic response. However in line with the restart of appraisals, they enabled revalidation recommendations to be made. So we have started on the road to the new normal which will I am sure have a number of different and improved facets.
So is it 'business as usual' now?
In some ways yes but in many ways no. Yes in so far as appraisal and revalidation recommendations are proceeding as previously, but no in respect of the support many of our doctors are needing. We have always asked and encouraged doctors to let us know about extenuating circumstances which might impact on their ability to engage, whether that is from unemployment, ill health, financial, personal or work challenges and we provide guidance and support in relation to revalidation. Not surprisingly, the numbers of doctors needing such support has increased considerably.
Have there been any positives from this past year?
Perhaps surprisingly the answer is very definitely yes – muted of course by so much hardship and sadness. An aspect that stands out for me is the number of our doctors who have wanted to assist with the pandemic often alongside continuing their previous roles. Of course also, I have been immensely proud of the contribution of our speciality to the unprecedented rapid development of vaccines, contributions that range from lab work through the eye-watering speed of recruitment to clinical trials to regulatory input and all the necessary medical affairs activities and beyond.
Another very real plus is to read the value so many have derived from the rebalanced appraisals. ‘Me time’ is so important especially currently and a time set aside to discuss and reflect on the past year, its impact on work, family, health, has been really appreciated by so many. Interestingly, this ability to discuss very private, sensitive matters does not seem to have been negatively affected by the appraisal being by videoconference – maybe it has helped. Zoom or equivalent has become a standard part of life for us all.
Who has supported you this year?
First and foremost the wider team. The office based revalidation team have been fantastic in adapting so seamlessly to home working – and they in turn have appreciated the wider departmental support such as IT and finance. Our appraisers who have done a sterling job, not only at adapting to video appraisals, but in scheduling so many appraisals in a shorter period than usual and at a time when they themselves have their own pandemic related stresses. They have also been fantastic at moving to a rebalanced supportive appraisal discussion and providing an empathetic environment for appraisees to reflect on the past year, signposting the wide range of support that is available where appropriate. And I know we don’t always think of regulators as ‘supportive’ but the GMC have been very responsive and understanding of the general pressures on the profession this past year and also of the very difficult circumstances of some of our doctors.
Any final thoughts on this International Women’s Day?
A couple. I know that overall men are more adversely affected by the virus but in relation to other aspects of the pandemic, one that has come across strongly from appraisals is that it is often the mums who seem to be picking up more of the burden of home schooling and juggling it with their careers. From the snippets included in appraisals, we still have some way to go for equality. However what has been really great to read, and is a sea-change from when I started my career, is that many employers have been very supportive to their female employees. It does look as if a period of enlightenment is dawning and the equal contribution that women can make is being recognised and valued. We do still have a way to go even in this country: huge strides are required in many countries and we all need to help drive the changes that are needed world wide. These changes will not be wrought by women alone – we need the help and partnership of our menfolk.