Gender and personal breastfeeding experience of rural GP registrars in Australia—a qualitative study of their effect on breastfeeding attitudes and knowledge

W E Brodribb, C Jackson, A B Fallon, D Hegney
Rural and Remote Health 2007, 7 (3): 737

INTRODUCTION: While most doctors believe they have a major role to play in breastfeeding promotion, and consider it worthwhile taking time to assist women to continue to breastfeed, it appears that gender and personal breastfeeding experience affect their attitude and confidence concerning breastfeeding issues. As doctors practicing in rural and regional areas may be expected to provide a greater degree of assistance and support for breastfeeding women, their views on these topics are of particular interest. This article reports the results of qualitative interviews with eight GP registrars from rural and regional Australia, and their views about the influence gender and personal experience have on their ability to assist breastfeeding women. The study is part of a larger project investigating the breastfeeding skills and knowledge of GP registrars as a basis for designing a tailored educational breastfeeding resource. This project uses mixed methods and triangulation of data.

METHOD: Semi-structured, one-on-one interviews were conducted with eight GP registrars from southern Queensland, Australia. The participants were chosen so that there were eight unique combinations of age (<34 or > or =34), gender (male or female) and breastfeeding experience (self or spouse had breastfed/had not breastfed) to ensure diversity of responses and increase the transferability of results. Demographics were collected from each participant, as well as information about: their attitudes to breastfeeding and to counselling breastfeeding women; their perception of breastfeeding knowledge needs and their confidence assisting breastfeeding women; and prior training about breastfeeding. Transcripts of the recorded interviews were returned to the participants for verification before analysis. Emergent themes were identified both within and between interviews following content analysis.

RESULTS: Four male and four female registrars with a mean age of 35 years (range 28-43 years) were recruited. Two participants of each gender were parents and their children had been breastfed for more than 6 months. Half the participants practised in small or other rural communities (RRMA 4 or 5), with three of the remainder practising in regional areas. Participants perceived that women thought female doctors were more knowledgeable and skilful concerning breastfeeding issues, regardless of their training or experience. They also assumed that women with breastfeeding problems would attend a female GP in preference to a male GP. These assumptions led male participants' to question the need for them to know any more than basic breastfeeding information. Being female, however, did not automatically confer special breastfeeding knowledge, with nulliparous female participants also mentioning a lack of knowledge and skills. In contrast, having personal breastfeeding experience (of self or spouse) was an important source of breastfeeding information and skill development, and increased the participants' confidence to assist breastfeeding women. Those without personal breastfeeding experience questioned the validity of the information they provided and felt that they would not be competent to assist mothers until they had had personal breastfeeding experience.

CONCLUSION: This subset of rural Australian GP registrars acknowledged that both gender and personal experience with breastfeeding influenced their attitudes, perceived knowledge and confidence with breastfeeding issues. Female doctors were thought to be more knowledgeable and skilful in assisting breastfeeding women. Additionally, personal breastfeeding experience was thought to be important for gaining competence in the area. While GPs do not work with breastfeeding women in isolation, they appear to be an important resource for breastfeeding women, particularly when living in rural and remote areas. These results have implications for those training GP registrars. Both men and women should be encouraged to learn practical breastfeeding information and skills to assist breastfeeding women, rather than relying on personal or spousal breastfeeding experience. By having some expertise in the area, they can work in partnership with others in the community to provide the services mothers need.

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