Women in general practice: International perspectives
Women doctors have played and continue to play a significant role globally both as practitioners and policy makers.
For British women doctors from the late 1800s, missionary work, particularly in India, was popular. This was during a time when their expertise was undervalued at home.
The career options open to women doctors have broadened significantly since the early 20th century. However, many medical students and doctors of all genders still choose to practice in countries away from home. This is to expand their experience and build on their expertise.
The World Organization of Family Doctors (WONCA) has always had a firm focus on women as GPs and patients. This is due partly to the nature of family medicine practitioners, and also their role within their communities.
“… I am busy all day long, there seems so little to tell as you would not care to hear about diseases? …” Edith Pechey, writing home from India, 1880s
“Dr Deacon, who was a strikingly handsome woman, had a colourful, courageous, and lovable personality. Her career was varied and full of incident, and she made friends wherever she went. She will be remembered by countless patients and personal friends for her warm-hearted generosity and the buoyancy of her spirit.” Obituary for Dr Mary Ariel Stewart Deacon (1871-1947), Government Medical Officer of Health for West Africa, based in Accra, Gold Coast (now Ghana)
“I think the reality is that women have more family issues and especially in the Asian culture like we are expected to look after the kids and we take on that responsibility, and so should there be some kind of flexibility in the system… I always felt that I had to balance my career and I had to be the perfect mum at home and the perfect wife and perfect daughter.” Woman GP interviewed as part of a recent global study
1885 The Countess of Dufferin Fund was established at the request of Queen Victoria, with the aim of improving women’s healthcare in India
1919 Christine Murrell worked with others to establish the first International Conference of Medical Women in New York
1972 The World Organization of Family Doctors (WONCA) was founded by member organizations in 18 countries
Find out more about individual women’s experiences by clicking to expand.
Amanda Howe is Professor of Primary Care at the University of East Anglia. She was President of the Royal College of General Practitioners. She also served as the first woman president of the World Organization of Family Doctors from 2016 to 2018.
"My interest in choosing general practice started when I went to West Africa as a volunteer, being astonished at the preventable morbidity and mortality where comprehensive primary care was non-existent. I came back determined to be part of medicine that could prevent where possible and diagnose early, though my medical school tutor told me that would be a ‘waste of a bright girl like you’...!
"My interest in healthcare overseas continued, in parallel with partnership in a deprived urban community, and raising my family. I was passionate about getting GPs into medical education and raising our professional profile. A move into academic paths led me to international collaborations, and the World Organization of Family Doctors – the global network for GPs, of which RCGP is a member. The same passion for change led me eventually to being their first female President, and to be the symbolic champion for GPs worldwide.
"Many countries do not yet offer the comprehensive, accessible, affordable, high quality medical care that GPs and their teams provide within the NHS. It has been an important part of my career, and the work of RCGP, to help others to see this vision and make it possible in their own place – in a way that benefits their population. We are one world – it has been a privilege to see that reality."
“Ugandan GP Dr Atai Anne Deborah Omoruto (1956-2016) was an outstanding leader in family medicine over many years.
"Her service to the people of Uganda, her work within the World Organization of Family Doctors (WONCA), and her extraordinary leadership tackling the Ebola crisis in West Africa, together brought her international acclaim. She was the global winner of WONCA’s Five-Star Doctor Award which recognises excellence as a care provider, decision maker, communicator, community leader and team member. She was also a devoted breadwinner and provider for her family, both her own children and her adopted children - some who had lost their parents to HIV/AIDS.
"Atai was the first President of the Association of Family Physicians of Uganda, a foundation member of the East African Association of Family Physicians, and supported the development of family medicine in Tanzania and Rwanda. She was a strong voice for African family medicine as a member of the WONCA Africa Regional Council.
"At the request of the World Health Organisation during the Ebola outbreak in Liberia, Atai led a unit of 12 Ugandan health workers for over six months from July 2014. At the height of the epidemic, this was a very courageous decision, as many frontline workers were dying due to inadequate PPE and care or disposal facilities. Atai was recognised with the award of the 2015 Uganda Golden Jubilee medal for this contribution.
"Sadly she died in May 2016, after a short illness. She was an amazing person, full of light and life, and a credit to global general practice."
- Amanda Howe
A Vietnamese vase
In 1969, Dr Madeleine Sharp (1920-2014) received this vase, made from part of an American military aircraft that had been shot down during the Vietnam War. She received it from Madam Binh, a member of the Provisional Revolutionary Government of South Vietnam. Dr Sharp was heavily involved in the anti-war movement in Coventry. She accepted the vase with Madame Binh’s hope that, having been created from a weapon, it would be used to hold flowers of peace.
Madeleine Sharp served in the Royal Army Nursing Corps in India. She then gained an NHS grant that enabled her to fulfil her ambition to train as a doctor. Having qualified from Edinburgh University Medical School, she joined an inner-city practice in Coventry. She worked there for over 30 years.
In 1965, she joined Medical Aid Committee for Vietnam. It later extended its remit to Medical and Scientific Aid to Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. She served as its Honorary Secretary from 1987 to 2009. She worked tirelessly to achieve its aims, working with the Vietnamese government to reduce rates of infant mortality. She also improved medical training, and explored how traditional treatments could work alongside Western medicine.
Dr Sharp was awarded the MBE in 2001 for her work defending human rights and humanitarian causes in Southeast Asia. She was chair of the City of Coventry Lord Mayor’s Peace Committee. She was awarded the Vietnamese Government’s Order of Friendship in 1992. She also received the Coventry International Prize for Peace and Reconciliation in 2004, and the Vietnamese Ministry of Foreign Affairs Order of Merit in 2013.
Image: Vase made from American military aircraft wreckage, Vietnam, 1969. Credit: Herbert Art Gallery & Museum, Coventry.
RCGP International – connecting globally
Val Wass is Professor of Medical Education in Primary Care at Aberdeen University. She is additionally Emeritus Professor of Medical Education at Keele University. She also serves as elected Member at Large on the WONCA executive.
“No man is an island. Promoting family medicine globally is crucial to address ever widening health inequities and achieve Universal Health Care. Covid-19 has dramatically highlighted this. Women have a major role: “Educate a woman and you educate a generation”.
"Connecting internationally has been intrinsic to my career as a GP and medical educator. In the mid-1990s the London Inner Zone Educational Initiatives (LIZEI) supported me, already mid-career, to study in Maastricht (Netherlands) on the Masters of Health Professions Education. I was truly immersed in an interprofessional international cohort of sixteen; only three doctors. It opened my eyes to the values underpinning global health. Equity, dignity, respect, and humility which support people, human rights and justice, not just knowledge. Values underpinning our College motto, “cum scientia caritas”.
"Happily, more structured opportunities now exist for women to develop internationally early in their careers. Extended training fellowships and the RCGP Junior International Committee attract young doctors full of creative energy to champion global issues. E.g. through the World Organisation of Family Medicine Doctors (WONCA) young doctor movements."
Image: Dr Val Wass and Dr Tin Myo Han, WONCA conference, Prague 2013.
Listen as Iona Heath reflects on international networks in general practice, and Gill Yudkin remembers her experience working as a GP in Tanzania.
Discover the exhibition
Find out more about the history of women in general practice by visiting our Women in GP exhibition.