A recent New York Times article, Doctors Who Want a Life, describes a “sweeping cultural overhaul of medicine’s traditional ethos” by which more young doctors are choosing paths that allow them a better work-life balance, centering the story around Kate Dewar, a resident who chose a hospital job instead of the taxing private practice route that her father and grandfather followed, a choice which allows her to spend more time with her newborn twins than her father and grandfather ever had. But even if doctors are making strides in their personal life, I think the article glossed over some equally important issues regarding women and medicine: By focusing solely on a woman who chose family time over professional success, the article quietly suggests that women aren’t up to the full-on careers of their fathers, and it also implies that the main benefit of a doctor with free time is that they can make it to their kids’ baseball games. What about male doctors who’d like a path that allows more time off (and females who choose a path that doesn’t)? And wouldn’t patients benefit from doctors (both male and female) who have a better work-life balance, too?
Kate Dewar’s elders were willing to miss out on family dinners and kids’ sporting events for the sake of watching their patients recover, a mindset that was encouraged when they were establishing their careers: “What about the wife and babies if you have them? Leave them,” the founder of the residency program at Johns Hopkins University wrote in the early 20th century. “Heavy are the responsibilities to yourself, to the profession and to the public. Your wife will be glad to bear her share of the sacrifices you make.” Needless to say, there weren’t many female doctors at the time.
But the article says that doctors being at the beck and call of their beeper is an old school concept; the vanguard of medicine is filled with doctors who work (and rest) as a team instead of sacrificing their personal lives to get ahead:
Younger doctors are deciding that the personal price of being at their patients’ beck and call is too high, while acknowledging that teams of doctors can offer a higher quality of care. So they are embracing corporate, less entrepreneurial and less intimate roles in part for the uninterrupted family time they bring.
But the author only points to a couple of unsubstantial statistics to prove that theory (a doctor recruitment firm reported filling 51% of positions for hospitals instead of private practiced in the past year; there are more pregnant residents now than there were years ago) – the rest of the article focuses on Dewar, whose father and grandfather had their own practices and hardly ever saw their kids. Not only is the argument unconvincing; it slyly brings up an issue that has been glossed over for some time; if you’re a woman and you want to work in the medical profession, forget a family, or “just be a nurse.”
I spent the first year and a half of college as a pre-med student (and guess how that turned out). The biggest obstacle between me and an M.D. was undoubtedly the fact that I could barely pass organic chemistry (I have many strengths, but they don’t lie in memorizing chemical formulas), but one pre-med advisor pitted another factor against me: “You might want to consider nursing,” he said; which I expected was his intro to a gentle reality check about my test scores. “If you ever want to have a family, it’s much more practical.” I nearly ran back to my apartment to share his sexist advice with my roommates (three of four were also pre-med at the time, so they understood my woes): We were all willing to bet our money that he’d never bring up family planning with a 19-year-old male who came asking for early career advice.
Likewise, I wonder whether the New York Times author would or could have found a male resident or doctor who’d chosen a hospital job in favor of raising his kids to balance out the story of the Dewars. Or perhaps they could have left family out of it: The point seems to be about work-life balance, not just the limitations of kids. Instead, the article reads like a story about women who are choosing to back off of their high level careers in order to tend to their kids; something we hardly need anyone to point out our praise. As a patient, I want more women (and women who have kids) to be available to treat me, and I also want more well-rested men who have the time and peace of mind to address my concerns.
Photo: The Daily Femme