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Interview – Virginia Beckett

Dr Virginia Beckett is a consultant obstetrician and gynaecologist at Bradford Teaching Hospital NHS Foundation Trust, and has been a media spokesperson for the College for many years.

During her time as spokesperson she has shared her expertise across a number of topics, ensuring the public get the most accurate, up-to-date information possible through the mainstream media.


How did you first became involved with RCOG and why?

Virginia Beckett

I had been the Editor of the Department of Health's 'Pregnancy Book' for several years, which required an ability to make complex medical concepts accessible to a wide range of readers. I had also already done some media work and so I thought that I might be suited to the role of media spokesperson.

I was keen to make a contribution to the work of the College but was unable to commit to travelling to London from Yorkshire for meetings.

Now that technology has evolved, I'm able do much of my radio work over the phone and so the role has become easier to fit into a busy working life.


What motivated and inspired you to work with the RCOG?

When I started, there weren't many female voices speaking about women's health issues.

I thought that it was important that the RCOG had spokespeople that our target audience could relate to. I've used obstetric and gynaecology (O&G) services as a patient myself, which gives my perspective credibility.

I really want my patients to be part of the team when we care for them. Part of encouraging their participation is ensuring that what they read or hear through the media is as accurate as possible.

I'm really keen that, as well as reacting to stories generated by the media, we use the media to deliver the messages that we, as O&G specialists, want to deliver.


Did anyone inspire you to work within women’s healthcare?

I decided to aim for a career in O&G when I was at school, having been inspired by the work of Edwards and Steptoe, the IVF pioneers.

Once I qualified, there were few female Consultant role models and even fewer who combined a career with having a family, but that made me even more determined! Lesley Regan gave me the chance to train part-time in Reproductive Medicine and was very supportive and encouraging.

I'm inspired every day though by the patients that I meet, by their resilience and bravery.

That's what makes going to work each day worthwhile!


How do you feel that your work with the RCOG has improved women’s healthcare?

Patients often tell me they've read or seen something in the media that I've commented on, and that it's helped their understanding or prompted them to seek further advice.

It's great to know I can have that impact, especially amongst the population that I work with in Bradford, where there are stark health inequalities apparent every day.

I think that my media work has made me a better clinician too; I've become a more effective and intuitive communicator.

I know that I've encouraged some journalists to think differently, to be more understanding of the challenges of our specialty. I regularly help to debunk the myths about women's health that pop up in the media.


What are some of your most memorable moments at the RCOG?

When I walk through the doors of Sussex Place, I still remember how it felt to sit my exams there. But it has been a place of celebration too and a place where I meet old friends.

In my work for the RCOG, a newspaper article where I talked about dealing with fetal losses on Labour Ward (when I was also pregnant) gave an insight into the personal impact of our specialty – long before "This Is Going To Hurt" by Adam Kay was published.

My recent interviews on vaginal steaming have generated a lot of interest, having reached a far wider audience than I was expecting!


Who are some interesting people you have met along the way?

I've had the pleasure of working for some real characters as a trainee, stories of whom still make my friends and I laugh.

I couldn't possibly reveal any names though...!


How important is it to encourage women to take a role in their own healthcare – empowering them to make decisions and have a voice?

Until we achieve that, we can't possibly hope to win the fight to improve women's health and the health of their children, so it's vital.

In my clinical practice, I frequently find that spending time talking with my patients means that we reach a diagnosis and a solution more quickly. This is ultimately more efficient than rushing because of the time pressures imposed upon us in busy clinics.

I have encouraged patients to set up support groups for infertility and to feed back to clinicians about the issues they care about, which they have really appreciated.

In a powerful example of empowerment, a patient who is a survivor of female genital mutilation (FGM) and trafficking is now speaking out about her experience to various audiences after I encouraged her to do so.


This year will see the first women's health strategy created. How important do you think this is? What impact could it have?

Many of my patients are men. I'd like to see health policies that encourage self-care and an awareness of health issues for both sexes, so that we reduce the incidence of ill-health and treat conditions as early as possible.

That said, of course I welcome the proposed Women's Health Strategy that will focus attention on a ‘whole of life’ approach to women's health issues.

I have no doubt that the strategy will have the potential to correct gender inequalities and the gender pay gap.

We have a talented female workforce that are being held back in their career choices because of heavy menstrual bleeding, incontinence or menopausal symptoms.

The strategy's aim is imperative: to break taboos, encourage women to seek help, and to ensure that we have the capabilities to prevent and treat women's health issues.


What is your one wish for future improvements in women's healthcare?

In the future, I'd like every woman to have the ability, through education and resources, to make the reproductive health choices that are right for her and to understand the consequence of those choices.

For example, women should be able to avoid sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and understand how to choose the right contraception, so that pregnancy happens when it is right for them – while also understanding that there is a window of opportunity beyond which it can be difficult to conceive.