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Medical Family Survival Skills


Professor Ruth Chambers, co-author of 'Survival Skills for Doctors and their Families', answers some frequently asked questions.

Q: What sort of problems do families face today that they probably didn't face a generation ago?

A: I am not sure that there will have been much change in medical family life. I suppose that it would be more common now for both parents to work- more likely that both parents are doctors- than say 30 years ago when only 10% of doctors were female and more women stayed at home if a couple could afford it. Now though, fewer doctors will work out of hours so there will be less pressure on family life.

Q: Do medical families face any special problems?

A: I think that there is a tendency for doctor parents to dismiss minor illness and encourage children to ignore it. So that might mean that children/teenagers feel that parents do not listen sufficiently to their complaints of feeling unwell or maybe being unhappy - but it is difficult to generalise.

Q: Do they have any advantages compared with other families?

A: Money of course which means holidays, education, material possessions.

Q: What are the most important things doctors can do to reduce the stress they're working under and reduce its impact on themselves and their families?

A: Consciously reserving quality time for their family. Not bringing work home or taking it on holiday. Finding another job or working less than full-time if too pressured by their current job.

Q: What tend to be the pros and cons of being married to a fellow doctor?

A: CONS  It can be difficult to go through training jobs together and be selected for specialty training in the same  location. Conflicting hours- if one needs to look after the family and both are on call or at late meetings. Medical talk might dominate family conversations.

PROS: A good salary x 2. Someone who understands your job and the various pressures and sacrifices. One of you at least can afford to work part-time and be with your family as they grow up.

Q: What about a partner with a career outside medicine?

A: CONS  They may not understand how altruism and personal satisfaction drives the doctor.  And they might feel shut out of doctors emotional side if the doctor is emotionally drained by work.

PROS  Diversity is great and stimulating.


Q: In your book, you distinguish between 'career dominated', 'career segregated' and 'career accommodating' relationships? What is the difference between them?

A: Just what the words say- the extent to which you prioritise your job over other components of your life- consciously or unconsciously. This might impact on your family relationships and social situation.

Q: And what are the implications for medical families?

A: If your parent(s) don't prioritise you against their career- obviously you will feel neglected. If your partner accommodates you and makes career sacrifices willingly, you wouldn't know if they were career accommodating- they might not go for a career promotion if it would mean moving house for instance.

Q: You also talk about Team Family? What's all that about?

A: Giving power to the children so that they feel that everyone contributes to the main decisions that direct family life- and that they are important to the parent ; the relationships are all robust and everyones contributions are respected and encouraged.

Q: One of your co authors has been your daughter, Steph. How important is it to have a perspective from the children of medical families?

A: As in everything in life you can be unconsciously incompetent or have other negative attributes. You only find out by asking for, enabling and listening to others feedback. If a doctor parent is entranced by their job, or focused on it because of fear or excitement to the exclusion of everything else- then they need to receive and hear feedback whilst there is still time to rectify things and the children have not been frozen out of the family relationship.

Q: And what does that perspective suggest?

A: A parent willing to listen and act.


Q: What would your top three tips for time management be?

1. Review what you are doing every day what is essential, desirable, optional for all components of your life and prioritise the essential if it cannot be delegated; and think hard if the desirable and optional activities/responsibilities cannot be stopped.

2. Say no when appropriate, mean it and keep to it

3. Delegate whatever is possible and appropriate

Q: And your top three tips for controlling long hours at work?

1. Keep a diary to see when / how long you are working; and reorganise if possible to reduce hours eg work four long days and have extra day off

2. Delegate

3. Go in early; leave as early as possible with a designated reason for going then eg meet someone not to do with work.

Q: How can we increase the prospects of the time we spend with our families being quality time?

A: Self-control designate family time and just don't let work intrude in thought or action

Q: Do you have any tips for making the most of time out/time away from work?

A: This will be an individual preference- and a balance with whoever else you live with and what they want to do. Doing something you want to do at least once a week would be a good start.

Q: With the benefit of hindsight is there anything you'd have done differently in your own family?

A: No- I've always had a good balance; and my husband was house husband / father for 10 years when the children were young.

Q: Can you suggest any books or resources that might be helpful to medical families?

A: Their own diary recording insights into what is good/not acceptable in their lives and then re-read it later to strengthen their resolve to get a more balanced life; stop doing the things making you ill or unhappy.


Professor Ruth Chambers is Director of Postgraduate GP Education, West Midlands Deanery and Professor of Primary Care, Staffordshire University and co author of 'Survival Skills for Doctors and their Families'.



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