The Mary Elizabeth Garrett Room lies off a busy corridor on the main floor of Johns Hopkins Hospital. As a medical student and later an internal medicine resident at Johns Hopkins, I often treated the small women’s lounge and adjoining locker room as a sanctuary amid my hectic days and nights of studying and call. Its namesake, a philanthropist who was one of the wealthiest women in the US in the late 1800s, used her financial power to provide opportunities for women to gain independence and autonomy. She and her friends offered to raise a badly needed $100,000 for the endowment of the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine if the trustees agreed to admit women on the same basis as men. The rest, for future women in medicine, was history.
In her New York Times opinion-editorial “Don’t Quit This Day Job” (June 12, 2011), anesthesiologist Dr. Karen Sibert argues that women physicians, who increasingly work part-time or leave clinical medicine altogether to find better balance between work and family life, have a moral obligation to practice medicine full-time. She rightly points out that there are limited medical school and residency slots in the face of a growing physician shortage, particularly in the primary care fields that attract women in high numbers. However, Dr. Sibert’s envisioned ideal would be a great loss to patients and the profession, and a major step backwards for women in medicine.
Historically, the practice of medicine had required a selfless devotion to the profession at the cost of personal and family life. Turn of the 19th century legendary physician Sir William Osler is credited for saying, “Medicine is a jealous mistress; she will be satisfied with nothing less.” These roots are evident in the harsh training environment that prevailed for so many years, requiring super-human work hours, rare days off, and expectations to work through personal illness. Slowly, medicine professional culture has made progress, realizing that the care of its members—in all senses of that word—helps physicians (men and women) lead more balanced, healthier, happier lives and helps patients by improving the quality and safety of their healthcare experience through physician work-hours restrictions.
For women physicians, who continue to perform the lion’s share of household duties and child-rearing despite a more progressive society towards the division of household labor, this has meant the increasing availability of part-time positions, job-sharing, and other creative solutions to allow them to continue practicing medicine while fulfilling commitments at home. Achieving work-life balance means greater satisfaction for one’s career and keeps women (and men) physicians in medicine. Indeed, it is this flexibility that is possible in certain specialties such as primary care, dermatology and radiology that makes medicine an attractive career for many women, despite the years of difficult training and medical school debt.
We are, after all, talking about a profession that is built around caregiving, with the parallels between caring for patients and families undeniable. Women physicians spend more time with their patients, up to 10% more, and have been shown to have a distinct style of doctoring from their male counterparts: more encouraging, supportive and patient-centered. The contributions of part-time women physicians are no less in quality to the lives of their patients; shouldn’t such devotion to caregiving at work and home be traits encouraged in physicians?
Invoking the predicted physician work shortage as a reason why women physicians should not work part-time or leave clinical medicine places undue guilt and blame on them. The main factors driving up physician demand is the growth and aging of the US population and health care reform. While women physicians do work fewer patient care hours compared to men, what kind of profession would we have if women who might decide to work part-time later were denied admission? More reasonable (and humane) answers to the physician shortage lies in lifting the residency training caps to train needed physicians and creating new models to increase efficient use of the existing workforce.
Besides, women (and also men), who choose to spend a portion of their medical careers working part-time or who take an extended leave, may return to full-time work at a later time, for example, after their children reach a certain age. Thus, there is a need for effective physician-reentry programs that help prepare any previously trained physician to return to the workforce, providing education and re-training as well as portals to reenter medicine.
Let’s not forget about the men. Besides early to mid-career women, men approaching retirement age are the other fastest growing segment choosing to join the part-time physician workforce. Survey data show that today’s medical students and residents, both men and women, say achieving a balance between their work and professional lives will be the most important factor when establishing a fulfilling career in medicine. Medicine mistresses are going out of style all-around, much to the dismay of the medical henchmen: Burnout, Stress and Dissatisfaction.
To be sure, medicine is a public good. Federal dollars support physician training, and certainly, it is imperative that medical school admissions committees select applicants, male and female, who show a strong commitment to medicine. Yet after training, men as well as women may decide not to practice clinical medicine. Is it more problematic when the reason is because a woman wants to raise a family versus a man who takes a job with a consulting firm? I hope not. These are difficult personal decisions, emphasis on personal. Like everyone else, doctors need to make decisions for the health of themselves and their families. Life happens.
I am a mother, and I am physician. These two roles are complementary in more ways than they are not. The increase in flexibility for women physicians in recent times has been a boon to those of us who have found a calling in medicine but do not want to sacrifice having a full family life. Isn’t that what Mary Elizabeth Garrett had in mind as well? Independence and autonomy for women to practice what they love, to be empowered by having choices.
Katherine Chretien is founder/editor of www.mothersinmedicine.com.