Health Check: 'The feminisation of the medical profession is gathering pace'

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To dinner at the Royal College of Physicians for sit-down nosh where 300 distinguished gents - mostly - quaffed a sumptuous St-Julien '85 in the annual toast to the memory of William Harvey, discoverer of the circulation of the blood. What cellars the Royal Medical Colleges have.

To dinner at the Royal College of Physicians for sit-down nosh where 300 distinguished gents - mostly - quaffed a sumptuous St-Julien '85 in the annual toast to the memory of William Harvey, discoverer of the circulation of the blood. What cellars the Royal Medical Colleges have.

Apart from the quality of the wine, there was something else notable about the illustrious gathering of ministers, medical presidents, institute directors and health tsars: the dearth of women. Only a handful of frocks could be spotted among the sea of DJs.

One of them was worn by Carol Black, president of the RCP and hostess for the evening. It was she who stirred controversy a couple of months ago with remarks, disclosed in The Independent, to the effect that there were too many women going into medicine, and that this trend could reduce the influence of the profession at the highest level.

Not much doubt about which sex wields the influence at present. Some 79 per cent of consultants are men and not a single woman is dean of a medical school.

But with 60 per cent of medical students now women - and the proportion still growing - the feminisation of medicine is gathering pace. This will be welcomed by many - patients and professionals alike - and Carol Black has been taken to task by some for suggesting that women may not be up to the job.

But this is not what she said. Indeed, it amounts to a wilful misreading of her point. The issue is not about the capacity of women to reach the highest levels of the profession. As Professor Black observed, in some ways they are better equipped than men, if their performance in medical school is anything to go by.

The issue is about their willingness to devote time, above and beyond their medical duties, to furthering the interests of the profession. That means eating dinners, attending meetings, sitting on committees - in short, networking. Men have been happy to give up their evenings for a chance to walk the corridors of power in the knowledge that their women have kept the home fires burning. Whether women will have the same confidence in their men - or the same desire to spend their spare time networking - is an important question and Professor Black was right to ask it.

Fortunately, the Government appears to be listening. John Hutton, who attended the Harveian celebration, has asked her to submit a report developing her ideas.

* A PROMINENT heart specialist at the dinner was discussing the merits of statins, the cholesterol-lowering drugs credited with saving thousands of lives. Abruptly, he reached into his jacket pocket and pulled out a private prescription, made out to himself, for 50mgs atenolol daily, a blood- pressure-lowering drug, and 20mgs simvastatin, the cholesterol drug now available over the counter.

Oh dear, I sympathised, what bad luck for a heart specialist to suffer from heart trouble.

But he denied it.

"I'm over 50, I have slight hypertension and a family history of heart disease. Everyone in my position should be on these. And I like to practise what I preach."

Vitamins, herbal nostrums, and mineral supplements we lay people take with abandon. But pharmaceutical drugs that actually work - that is another matter.

* POOR JOHN PEEL, the plain man's celebrity. I interviewed him once, aeons ago, for Birmingham University's student newspaper when he hosted a gig there. The thing I remember best is the holes in his threadbare jumper. He was the antithesis of cool.

Peru seemed an oddly exotic location for such an exceptionally ordinary man to meet his end. Then I recalled a friend who had a near-fatal episode while on holiday in Lima, the capital, and had to be flown home with a previously unsuspected heart problem.

A cousin who runs a hot-air balloon business in Cappadocia, Turkey, tells of a client who collapsed while airborne and had to be brought rapidly to ground. After he had recovered he confessed to a history of heart trouble.

What Peru and Cappadocia have in common is high altitude. Mark Hanson, British Heart Foundation Professor of Cardiovascular Science at Southampton University, says the lack of oxygen at altitude can put a strain on a weakened heart. It has to pump an increased volume of blood to deliver the same amount of oxygen to the tissues.

John Peel had recently been diagnosed as diabetic, which could have caused damage to his blood vessels for as much as a decade earlier, adding to the risk. The moral is that anyone with possible heart trouble should think twice before heading for the world's high spots. If you decide to go, put in some training and take time to acclimatise. It is perfectly possible - groups of heart-transplant patients frequently climb Mount Kilimanjaro to demonstrate the fitness of their new organs.

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