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Patients must know whether or not their medic is a biological woman

3 min read

The Lords raise their voices – and something happens.

On 17 October last year, following reports that the General Medical Council (GMC) had removed the words “mother” and “women” from its internal policies on maternity and menopause, I expressed concern that doctors might not realise it was women who gave birth and who went through the menopause.

Importantly my question led the minister Lord Markham to meet with the GMC. This he dutifully (and speedily) did, and over Christmas sent me a very welcome letter reporting on his meeting and moves within the Department of Health.

I also raised the issue directly with GMC chair Dame Carrie MacEwen and her colleagues about the GMC’s practice of accepting (without a gender recognition certificate) a doctor’s change of gender on their register – with, apparently, no guidance as to when or if patients should be alerted that someone, for example, listed as a female doctor is actually a biological male. 

This raises interesting questions of informed consent and whether a patient has really agreed to be seen by a biological man (presumably without the offer of a chaperone) who has changed their gender.

It's not just for intimate examinations that women might feel more comfortable being seen by another woman. Many practicing Muslim and Jewish women would not want to disrobe – or even show their hair – in front of a man. So it is vital that patients know whether or not their medic is indeed a biological woman.

At present, there are only 77 doctors on the register who have changed their gender, and perhaps they all inform their patients of this. It was interesting that the GMC thought it was for the employer to oversee this – albeit some doctors may be sole practitioners, and anyway it’s unclear how an employing body (which could be a company) or healthcare provider would know the background since this is not evident from the register.

The minister’s response not only led to dialogue with the GMC, when he made it plain how vital it was to have clear language and terminology when referring to biological sex – and indeed received reassurances on this. He also reported that sex-specific language had been restored to NHS UK online advice pages, with the page on cervical screening referring to women.

The issue itself is important to public policy. But for The House magazine and its readers, what is notable is that one oral question and, in particular, the response from across the House – and the willingness of the minister to follow this up – has produced data from the GMC not previously known, and a commitment from the Department of Health to use clear language, especially in regard to women’s health and treatment. 

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