RCP's Registrar:  Increasing the Visibility of Women as Healthcare Leaders

Siobhan Harris


January 19, 2022

It's been a steep learning curve for Dr Cathryn Edwards. She took over her post as registrar of the Royal College of Physicians in May 2021.

Dr Cathryn Edwards

She is the first women to take on the role in more than 500 years. Dr Edwards is a consultant physician and gastroenterologist working in Devon and has previously held roles as Secretary and President of the British Society of Gastroenterology. Her new position as registrar is a key leadership role and one of national importance in healthcare.

She took over the post from the late Professor Donal O'Donoghue OBE who died with COVID-19 in January 2021 at the age of 64.

Medscape UK asked Dr Cathryn Edwards about her role as registrar, the effect of COVID and the challenges ahead.

Congratulations on your 'not so new' post. How have you found it so far?

Thank you. My instinct is to say just how much ground has been covered of necessity, at pace, because joining the organisation mid-term means that you need to take a brief quickly, so as to be up to speed on key issues for the college and therefore able to contribute and support the wider team effectively. I did deliberately 'frontload' my learning, organisational and personal, in the first 6 months to be as functional as possible as fast as possible.

What lessons has the RCP learned from the pandemic and what's your assessment for the future?

Like many charities the pandemic has brought operational challenges for the RCP, a charity organisation which supports over 40,000 members and employs around 350 staff. The benefits of virtual working have accelerated our connections with both the UK and global membership and emphasised that as physicians there is much more that unites our specialties than divides us. Covid has demonstrated how the whole physician workforce has been mobilised sometimes at great personal cost, to support patients the NHS. It has also shown how the RCP with its specialty societies and faculties, can provide a rapid review of research data, and communicate and co-ordinate clinical responses.

Separately, but of great importance has been the way in which our President has been able to lead our direct interactions on behalf of the membership with the devolved administrations at a time of national crisis.

What do you feel are the biggest challenges for your membership at the moment? Recruitment, retention, burn out, impact of COVID?

Workforce remains the biggest crisis facing the NHS. This was true before COVID and remains so now. The psychological and physical impact of workload intensity, the need to deliver and support training (which impacts hugely the workforce of the future) and to retain doctors in the latter phases of their careers is huge.  With this in mind and faced with the demands of the backlog, there needs to be transparency and realism in the conversations on service recovery and in managing public expectations. College has led the messaging around the lack of medical and healthcare workforce as well proposing some of the solutions: doubling number of medical students as a longer-term solution; supporting amendments to Health and Social Care policy, specifically on workforce modelling; supporting the wellbeing of our members and identifying factors contributing to burnout, sickness and retirement through our longitudinal workforce data.

What is your portfolio as registrar?

It’s a very broad, college wide portfolio, which is why it’s both so enjoyable and challenging in equal measure. The role is appointed not elected which helps provide continuity in the leadership team at the college and splits into two main areas of responsibility. First, the registrar is responsible for all professional matters to do with the membership and fellowship: they 'hold the register of member'. Second, the registrar is responsible for all matters to do with internal governance: this divides broadly into the oversight of professional consultations, the running and governance of committees (of which there are many), and the overseeing of matters of conduct and discipline and elections. Members and fellows are drawn from all parts of the physician community from students to elected fellows and represent international as well as UK physicians. Some are physician associates and a growing number of SAS physicians

I have a particular interest in and experience of working with professional membership and charity organisations whose governance and structures are often complex.

Not only are you the first female RCP registrar in more than 500 years but you were also awarded an OBE last year, what do both accolades mean to you?

The role of the registrar was first created in the 16th century at a time when women were not permitted to attend university (specifically at the time Oxford and Cambridge) and, therefore, were not admissible to the profession of medicine. In 1909 the first woman member was admitted to the college, the first female licentiate in 1910, and the first female fellow Helen MacKay elected in 1934. Dame Margaret Turner-Warwick became the first female president in 1989. I would like to think however that it’s not the gender of the person that marks them out but the contribution that they make to the organisation and the profession. Helen Mackay changed global medical attitudes to infant feeding and Dame Margaret contributed hugely to discussions around professionalism and integrated care. I feel greatly honoured that I can increase the visibility of women in senior leadership roles but equally feel the responsibility on me is to contribute to life of college and its role in shaping and supporting the profession. Given the comments I have just made on the workforce crisis it is vital that medical organisations draw leaders from the widest possible and diverse workforce pool.

Likewise, the great privilege of representing the work of my specialty society as President reflected in the citation of OBE, is for me huge recognition of impact that the specialty has made, particularly in leading a response in the COVID pandemic.

It is of course a huge personal honour and I am looking forward to the occasion of the investiture to reflect and celebrate with my family.


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